However interested you are in politics, university is the perfect place to explore your views. From political societies to SU politics, or student media, there are so many ways for your voice to be heard. We spoke to three politics students, Sidney, Alice and Cam, on how to get involved regardless of your degree subject, and their experiences in student politics.
Sidney became a member of PolSoc – the politics society at his uni – predominantly to attend the academic talks and events they hosted. “I think it was the immigration debate that turned out to be one of their most popular ones – and one of their more controversial ones.” He explained, “I remember they also had Peter Hitchens, back in first year as well.”
“You have everyone from politics, to PPE, to PPL, to HisPol (History and Politics), but there’s also a large selection of people who aren’t politics students.” Sidney said, “There’s a lot of English students actually. So, just generally anyone who is vaguely political, it doesn’t matter if you do a politics degree.”
Sidney’s attendance at PolSoc naturally led to his involvement in the party societies. He recommended joining a general politics society first if you’re unsure of your political views, “Find whatever equivalent of a politics society that you’ve got on campus, see what events they put on, whether or not they do debates, or speaker events, or socials, and there you’ll find people from most political backgrounds.”
Cam added that his eyes were opened at uni by the range of different opinions, “It was the first time in my life that every political party has kind of had a stake.” He explained how he grew up in an extremely conservative safe seat, which marginalised all the other parties, “Uni is really the first time where anyone who supports any party or any kind of political view can have that opportunity to discuss and debate them, to go to these events, to see these speakers – not just the main political societies, the party-affiliated ones, but also the academic societies as well.”
“I think to anyone, any fresher joining university, just throw yourself into everything you can,” Cam encouraged, “If you see, for example, a speaker, who looks very interesting, but who you may totally agree, or totally disagree with, go to the talk, ask them questions, get involved, hold those debates with the people at the event, because you’re really going to benefit a lot from that.”
Sidney himself took a great interest in the SU politics at his uni, but wished there was higher turnout among other students. “For it to actually work, ironically,” Sidney explained, “You need the people who don’t really care too much about politics to actually also be involved. But if it’s hyper-political, it tends to push a lot of people away.” He gives an example from his uni, “It means that postgrads and STEM students are much less likely to get involved, even though they together end up making a majority of the university population.”
Alice was also concerned about students’ lack of engagement in the SU motions. “The thing that I find with uni politics,” she said, “Is that if you don’t pay attention to it, a lot of things happen in the background. A lot of votes pass, you know, that students might not even know are happening.” She named, for example, a motion to move all teaching online for the next academic year, which could potentially have passed unnoticed. “Obviously, everyone is involved and knows about the big campaigns to elect the president, but throughout the year we don’t know much about the individual, sort of rule changes that go on.” She recommended that when the votes are advertised to students through email and online, a particular emphasis should be made on the motions.
Alice wondered if the perception of student politics deters many voters, “I think once you step outside of uni, the way that student politics is described is really, really sort of critical. You’ve got them calling those that are involved, you know, ultra woke or communists, and it actually has quite a bad name for itself.” She named, for example, the news story of Manchester SU banning clapping in favour of jazz hands for potentially deterring students from SU votes.
Cam raised the issue of low voter turnout as well, “I don’t think people necessarily understand how important politics is.” He continued, “When you see a lot of the activism that so many students do on campus, I think that’s the realisation for a lot of people who haven’t been as politically engaged in the past just how important politics is. Many students will have these discussions and gain greater knowledge and take positions for themselves, and that can only be healthier in a student’s democracy.”
Sidney became a consistent writer for his uni newspaper in his third year, “If you like your writing and journalism, then student newspapers or comment sections are always a place to go if you want to form your opinions in prose.” Alice added the importance of reading the news, “My main advice that was given to me in one of my first-year seminars, was to read all the newspapers. So take a story that’s been happening in the media – I don’t know, Brexit, for example – and read an article across all the spectrums. It really made me realise how much bias there is and also how different points of view can shape the same event in so many different ways.”
Cam described his heavy involvement with his university radio station, as Head of News. He explained how his role can’t focus solely on students with political views, “I’ve got a job to report what’s going on to a lot of students who often aren’t involved in student politics or ones who don’t follow it as closely, or only during the SU election week.” As Head of News, Cam was required to present a balanced argument, “It’s about getting people on all sides to bring their arguments and have those debates with each other. Then I make it accessible for other students to be able to look at the debate and see where they sit on it.”
How did he find this impartiality as a politics student? “In many ways it’s sometimes easier than when I used to do the shows at times,” he laughed, “I actually find it quite nice not having to take a position, as long as I make sure that every side of the debate is explored, and I throw the counters to the guests.” Cam continued, “It’s a skill that’s learned over time, definitely. And, yeah, I would say something that as you go on, it does become easier.”
Through his involvement with the student radio, Cam met a large variety of different perspectives. “One of the most interesting things I’ve always said about uni, is that I come from just one part of British society and it’s given me an appreciation of just how diverse and how cosmopolitan British society is.” He explained, “I think being exposed and having these debates with people from a very diverse range of backgrounds, with a very diverse range of opinions is something that has certainly broadened my views and I think I’m a lot better for it. Definitely.”
“Being in student media, where you’re right at the centre of that buzz, and you’re meeting and you’re getting involved with these diverse range of individuals, that’s, I think something that’s been particularly beneficial.” Cam continued, “I love just mediating all of that, but I often feel like I’m learning as well even though I’m the one who’s supposed to be totally in control of everything that’s going on.” He discussed the vast difference in the backgrounds of his friends, perhaps influencing their form views, “But I think the great thing about university in that regard is that it is somewhat of a leveller, where everyone is very much given those equal opportunities.”
Student media isn’t exclusively for politics students or those very informed on politics either. Cam remembered, “We’ve done radio shows in the past, for example, when we’ve had people, who by their own admission don’t really know a lot about politics, but in many ways they’ve come on and given their view and it’s not necessarily the sort of the academic standard you imagine in a politics seminar, but it’s just as important.” He explained the crucial voices of those with less informed political views, “In many ways that is a reflection of quite a large element of society that isn’t as politically engaged. That very much comes into politics.” Cam advised, “As long as you sort of have a basic idea, and are sort of willing to sort of keep your mind open to new things and taking onboard new ideas. I’d say that’s probably the most important thing.”
Both Sidney and Cam were also elected as academic representatives for their courses. Cam describes the greater need for his voice since the COVID pandemic, “One thing I did have as part of my role was the first lockdown last year and the adjustment and the shock.” He used his role to speak up for students at home, “I very much saw at that time that I had a unique position, having been elected by my peers, to really ensure that people have that support on work and make sure that my cohort were feeling confident, were feeling secure with all the procedures that have been put in place by the department.”
Cam also considered the effect COVID had made on student activism in general. “I think that a recurring theme throughout the last year is students feeling like they’ve been left behind, whether that’s by the government, whether that’s by students unions, whether that’s by universities,” Cam drew the parallel, “I think in that regard, I think students have become more activist.”
Alongside online teaching, safety nets and mitigation, he also discussed wider political causes, “I think of the last 12 months, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a time where students and young people have generally been more politically engaged as they have. Obviously, I think following the murder of George Floyd, and obviously, the response to the Black Lives Matters protests, the number of young people who stood up against racial injustice and protested in the streets, I haven’t seen anything like that.”
“I like to see more people realising the power of their voices and getting more engaged in politics more widely than perhaps that that directly affects them,” Cam reflected. He also proposed social media as a factor for this increased engagement, “Because these tools are literally in their hands, young people can scroll through their mobile and they’ve got access to so many resources now. Young people themselves have the ability to create their own content and put their opinions forward so much easier now.” He admitted, “Obviously the tone of the debate sometimes is something that can be concerning and not always the most conducive. But I think where you have that greater personal control and that greater personalisation, people are seeing themselves now, or seeing social media, as a vehicle for them to be more political, to be more engaged and put their opinions forward further.”
You do not have to do all of the above to engage in politics while at uni. Neither do you need to be fully informed nor have an opinion on everything. Get involved, keep an open mind, listen to all opinions, and find the confidence to voice your own.