For a long time, young people were accused of being apathetic, and student activism was thought to be dead. That changed when student protests against the 2012 tuition fee rises took hold in campuses across the country. But according to Amatey Doku, vice-president for higher education at the National Union of Students, tuition fees were too inward-looking an issue to inspire a genuine student and youth-driven political movement. Instead, a unifying cause has finally arrived: the battle to stop Brexit.
“If we can secure a people’s vote and there’s a campaign, that’ll be the one time we can really get students behind it and with a common cause,” he says. “There is growing momentum.”
Doku thinks the people’s vote campaign is capturing the attention of students more than the referendum. Most young people didn’t really believe Brexit was going to happen, and lots of current students who were under 18 at the time now feel frustrated that they were unable to vote. “There is much stronger youth leadership,” he says. “The way we’ll win this fight is to make sure that young people are at the forefront of making the argument, to make clear that this is about our futures and we absolutely need a say.”
As well as his role representing students’ interests on higher education before government and universities, Doku is also heavily involved in the people’s vote campaign, primarily as a member of student campaign group For Our Future’s Sake. He’s proud of the way the group is deeply involved: “It’s not the people’s vote campaign saying ‘where can we find some young people?’ – it’s actually full-time young organisers who are working as partners to make sure we’re at the forefront of the debate and media appearances.” Doku, for instance, was one of the speakers at the march for a new Brexit referendum in central London, which drew almost 700,000 people.
One of For Our Future’s Sake’s key aims is to communicate to the Labour party how Jeremy Corbyn’s reticence to speak out against Brexit could be endangering the party’s support among young people. The group is currently encouraging voters to write why they’re backing a second referendum on a blank billboard in Corbyn’s Islington constituency. Some have already set out their disillusionment: NUS president Shakira Martin wrote “you have let down the mandem”, while another have scrawled “love Jez, h8 Brexit”. “There’s a real risk they take [youth] support for granted,” Doku says. “A lot of students I’ve spoken to feel bewildered by the Labour party.”
Doku sees this as the moment for the NUS to step in and take charge of the 7 million-strong student voice. “I don’t think any political party can claim to represent the views of students. They’re detached from the everyday experience of students, if Brexit is anything to go by,” he says. “At a time when our futures are being messed around with by politicians in Westminster, we need to galvanise students, to inspire them to believe that they can change their education, their communities, the country and the world.”
He thinks that social media could be a good opportunity for the NUS to revitalise the student movement. “Lots of people like to look at the 70s and 80s as the heyday of student activism, and there was a lot of activity going on, but we’ve now got this new frontier,” he says. “We have the capacity to platform students’ campaigns, we’ve got the capacity to link people in different parts of country, but I don’t think we’ve done that.”
While Doku is proud of the way students have galvanised behind the people’s vote, he is disappointed with university leaders. He thinks vice-chancellors could do more to lobby their MPs to represent their interests in parliament, and to write opinion pieces in newspapers as individuals, rather than just as a collective. “I know they’re worried about it but even the tone so far has been focused on no deal. What people are failing to recognise is that even the prime minister’s deal doesn’t satisfy most of the questions which need answering on Brexit.”
As his time as NUS vice-president for higher education draws to a close ahead of elections in April (nominations for successors have just opened), Doku’s other priority is working to close the BAME attainment gap. “The sector has a terrible record on this,” he says. He is currently working with Universities UK on a review chaired by Valerie Amos, vice-chancellor of the School of Oriental and African Studies. “It’s an issue that’s been talked about for a very long time […] but there’s never been anything that’s really moved it on from something talked about to real action.”
Doku says that the group has so far been most impressed by examples where there is clear leadership on closing the attainment gaps, where students are heavily involved, and where any initiatives are properly evaluated. The best approaches also reflect the makeup of the student body.
He adds that universities can learn a lot from the BAME representatives in student unions who run campaigns on issues affecting students. “When an articulate young BAME person comes to [the university] with new ideas they don’t know how to deal with them,” he says. “They don’t recognise their experience, they can’t relate to them – that’s where the blockage is.”
This applies equally to decolonising the curriculum and broadening the bookshelf campaigns, Doku adds. Too often he comes up against challenges from senior staff that “claim to be objective”, but are in reality cultural. “The creation of knowledge isn’t an objective thing. It doesn’t come out of thin air, it comes out of individuals conducting research in certain ways.”