8. 30 am. The alarm pierces the foggy hangover. Turning over the student grunts; lecture at 9am, essay deadline at 5pm, bus to London to change the world at 11pm. This isn’t necessarily the image that will spring to mind when most people think of a stereotypical student, this is a new species that has evolved from their 1970s predecessors: the student activist.

The DEMOLITION demonstration in London last November, organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and University and College Union (UCU), has thrown student activism into the media and not in a particularly favourable light. 50,000 students took to the streets to protest against the proposed changes that would see the cap on university tuition fees in England and Wales climbing to £9,000 and a 40% cut to education funding. It showed us that a student campaign can have the capability to influence governmental resignations, mass mobilisation, occupations and unprecedented violence in the world of politics. With so many students taking part can this campaign be called a success or does the vandalism and violence condemned by David Cameron as ‘unacceptable’ make it a failure?

Liam Burns, the President of NUS Scotland and President-elect of NUS UK, has been at the front of many student campaigns for a few years and understands where this campaign both succeeded and failed: “This campaign meant that the rise in the cap on tuition fees dominated the political agenda for three months but it also hindered the campaign. It lost public sympathy.” It is not however just the campaign itself that failed, “We should have had the foresight to see that when the coalition government was formed we had lost already. May the 6th should have been the day for a national demo to make sure that the tuition fees were a part of the coalition agreement.”

There are student activists that condone the violence seen at Millbank tower; Vicki Baars is one of the officers for the NUS LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans) campaign. She was also one of the members of NUS that signed a statement in support of the direct action used at Millbank. “The November 10th Demonstration “Demolition” saw 50,000 students turn out on the streets of London instead of an expected 15,000. A break-off happened and around 5,000 students and allies occupied the courtyard of Millbank with 100 or so people making their way up to the roof. The press took to this event like vultures to a carcass,” Vicki explains.

“There were a number of acts of vandalism such as the breaking of windows, graffiti inside and out of the building and the infamous throwing of a fire extinguisher. Whether or not you agree that this was a good tactic to use captured the attention of the press for weeks. Most newspapers used images from Millbank on their front page the next day. This event undeniably drew attention to the cause. Millbank changed the atmosphere of the campaign, breaking a seal, letting the lid of anger of thousands come loose.” She said.

Stevie Wise, the Vice-President of Academic Affairs at Edinburgh University was one of the EUSA sabbatical officers who were at the very front of the successful Write to Mike campaign. The day the Browne review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance came out Liz Rawlings, EUSA President, phoned all the local MPs to ask how they would vote. Liberal Democrat Mike Crockart said he would abstain or vote with the government. This then sparked the idea for the Write to Mike campaign.

“We put pictures of him making the pledge against a rise in tuition fees on the EUSA website and template letters for students to use to write to him urging him to vote against.” Stevie said. “We went out on campus with letters to get students to sign, we managed to get 1000 letters signed in two days and took them to his office the following Monday.”

Crockart told EUSA that he would come out publicly about voting against the rise in fees at the beginning of the vote, on the Monday he was impersonated on a radio phone-in. “When we told him this would be a perfect time to come out publicly he refused. He kept refusing and eventually we used contacts we had at the Guardian to make his stance public.”

Stevie explains why she thinks this campaign was so successful: “Campaigns can be successful being reactive; they don’t all have to be proactive. We played it really well gaining his trust and not telling the press straight away. We learnt that you have to have a degree of trust when working with politicians.”

As well as successfully getting Crockart to vote against the rise in tuition fees the campaign also saw him step down from his role as parliamentary private secretary to Scottish Secretary Michael Moore.

The Budget for Bursaries campaign, an NUS Scotland coordinated campaign that was launched to lobby the government to save college bursaries, was created when the Draft Scottish Budget was released that cut the student support available in colleges by £1.7m. The campaign wanted to ensure that the Scottish government would commit to finding the £14m shortfall in funding needed to protect college students rather than cut the funding further. This success saw over 32,000 e-mails sent in just two and half weeks – and the Scottish Government agreed to put an extra £15 million towards college bursaries over the next two years, and an extra £8 million towards creating new college places.

An interview with the then education shadow secretary for the Labour party, Des McNulty and his Liberal Democrat equivalent Margaret Smith showed that campaigns such as Budget for Bursaries can impact MSPs.

Did the Budget for Bursaries campaign make a difference to MSPs and the way they voted?

MS: It definitely made a difference to us. The timing was right, it was achievable and there was a consensus that all parties would support it if we could find the money. This campaign built on successful NUS Scotland campaigns and past wins, for instance the Parent Trap that won more money for student parents.

DM: I think it did. What’s probably true is NUS over years has had successful lobbying on bursaries and has built up a system of principles and awareness of practicals which laid the foundation which it would not have been successful without.

Was the campaign handled well? Was it seen to be professional?

MS: On top of the fees campaign this made sense, this brought human beings in. Parents came in to highlight the anomalies of the bursary system. It was a very human way to ignore numbers and make it about individuals. We’ve had disagreements with NUS Scotland before but the way it argues its case and lobbies is professional.

DM: Yeah I think so. NUS Scotland has a good degree of experience in making its case.

We’ve seen lots of different student campaigns this year – most notably down south – was this campaign handled differently? If so did this mean it was received better on the political side?

MS: It was embraced due to the respect for NUS Scotland. They asked for the right thing at the right time. And nobody threw a fire extinguisher at anybody else.

DM: The campaign down south was based on rage and not controlled by NUS. In Scotland it has managed the campaign. Had specific asks and got track record on them. It got the outcome it wanted.

The Save EMA (Education Maintenance Allowance) campaign was created when the Comprehensive Spending Review was released it said that EMA would be reformed. “Which we found out meant abolish.” Said Shane Chowen, the NUS Vice-President FE (Further Education).

EMA is a means-tested allowance of between £10 and £30 a week, paid to 16- to 19-year-olds who stay on in education, available to those who come from households where the net pay is below £30,000 pa.

The Save EMA campaign was set up in partnership with several trade unions. “We thought it was important to get the perspective of people who weren’t just students but also who could see the benefits of more students aged 16, 17 and 18 in education.” Said Shane.

A system called EMAiling was set up which allowed students to use template emails to use to send to their local MPs and the campaign gave out the email address of Michael Gove. “We decided it was really important to make it a political issue.”

A day of action was set up on the 13th of December using contacts created from EMAiling and previous NUS campaigns. “We managed to get the issue out to people from the halls of Westminster to local sixth forms and colleges.”

Despite all of the positivity throughout the campaign EMA was still abolished but Shane says this doesn’t make the campaign a failure. “We didn’t win the vote but we did the absolute best we could, they used out-dated statistics to abolish EMA. It was our campaign that convinced them to come up with a replacement when they didn’t previously have one. Our action managed to get the replacement budget from £75million to £180million and people that are already getting EMA will still get it. It is still an important issue to us and we are not willing to let it go.”

EMA has now been scrapped in England under the current government’s new budget however it has been saved in Scotland and Wales. “The EMA argument was easier for students in Scotland and Wales because their governments are more left-wing. At the time they were also both leading up to elections and because of this politicians were willing to make promises to win the election. The devolved nations must do everything they can to ensure that those who got into power keep their promises to students.” Said Shane.

Student activism has been splashed across the front pages frequently over the past few months and often in a very negative light. But that is because students are once again discovering their voices and discovering that sometimes, when they shout loud enough, someone might actually listen to them and hear the issues that affect them. It does not always matter that the campaign is necessarily a success or failure it matters that their voice is heard.

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