College campuses around the globe have long been hot-beds of political movements, from Kent State’s anti-war protests to more recent marriage equality campaigns in Irish third-level institutions. Graduate historian, academic researcher and associate lecturer Dr Steve Conlon has completed academic research on the history of the Irish student movement and its role in the public sphere.
Ahead of NUI Galway Students’ Union elections early last month, he explained the powerful political role students have played to effect social change in Ireland to SIN.
“Students get involved in political issues because they care. Young people are not apathetic, they are passionate about resolving issues,” said Dr Conlon.
“What I found while doing my research is that students want the groundwork done while they are in college, and they want to enter an ‘adult’ world where there are not as many injustices.”
Dr Conlon also detailed how important the individual unions are as a platform of discourse and discussion, dismissing claims that campuses no longer foster an environment of debate
“The Students’ Unions offer a platform for people to discuss issues on campus. This can be done through debates, guest speakers and fundraisers. The debates can be political or academic, and the guest speakers can be people who are personally affected by the issues,” he said.
“Referendums organised about the stance a students’ union should take on a social issue gives a legitimacy to the campaigns. Also, they are very important in allowing people to dissect an issue and to engage in debate.
“There is a sense nowadays that colleges have become a place where beliefs cannot be challenged, but I don’t think this is true,” he added.
However the former DCU lecturer had a few sticking points about the student movement, admitting that sometimes they overshadow others who are also striving for social change.
“Students are given a disproportionate platform compared to their peers who are not in full-time education, perhaps because they are louder. Student movements need to recognise that privilege – a lot of youth groups who engage in politics are not deemed as ‘legitimate’ as students, they are viewed with a type of suspicion,” he explained.
“There are also a lot of youth groups doing great practical work out there, like Christian youth groups combatting the homelessness crisis on the ground, which shouldn’t be ignored.”
Dr Conlon also thought that the student movement needed to listen to “dissenting voices” more at times.
“The movement needs to take a step back and listen to dissenting voices. However, if a referendum is held on campus about a social issue, the losing side cannot just cry wolf. Once two sides engage in this political mechanism, they have to accept the result.”
“There might be students who have to work after class, or they may have to go home to care for a sick loved one, and their voices are not heard,” he pointed out.
He believed that the privilege of being involved and active in student politics should not be overlooked.
The researcher also warned against the further disenfranchisement of those with opposing views, as current social justice issues will not be on the agenda forever.
“In the next two years, the student movement will suffer an identity crisis, because there will be no more referenda for them to campaign about,” Dr Conlon warned.
“Student movements also educate young people about social injustices while they are studying, then they graduate from college and move on,” he said.
“But that empathy won’t leave them, and they will end up supporting these causes in the ballot box. It isn’t just about the here and now – the younger generation will eventually become that older generation who vote.”
However Dr Conlon acknowledged that Students’ Unions were very successful in registering their students to vote in recent years.
“In the early 2000s, student movements were less successful in getting students registered as times were good because it was the Celtic Tiger, there was no reason for them to engage, but now that there has been a referendum on marriage equality and there will be one on reproductive rights, students are registering,” he said.
“Whether they turn up to the ballot box on the day, that is hard to know. I think the biggest challenge for student activists is making sure their students are continuously engaging with these issues.”
However things look positive in this regard according to Dr Conlon reflecting on the student effort for marriage equality in 2015.
“The USI ran a very professional campaign, they were highly organised, made submissions to the citizen’s assembly, and they spoke to the media,” he said.
“There was a strange attitude at the time towards young people’s participation in politics, a lot of people though they would sit this one out… this wasn’t the case with students.”
He predicted that this would carry through into the vote on the Eighth Amendment.
“In the marriage equality referendum, students probably brought the Yes vote up a percentage point or two, but that referendum was won quite comfortably.
“However, the referendum on the Eighth will be a lot closer, so that could make the difference, and students will be significant if they turn out to vote.”
By Aine Kenny
Pic: Haley Myatt