Student Political Culture: Past, Present, and Future



As spring approaches, so do the annual Students’ Association elections. Though all will notice the changing temperatures and rave over the ability to leave the house coat-less, the elections for most will go unnoticed and ignored. Apart from the occasional Facebook post urging you to vote for the person who lived down your corridor’s academic mum for DoAS, DoEd, or DoSDA, it’s easy to forget elections are even happening. For most, the person they choose to vote for (if they vote at all), will be the name they vaguely recognise from outside the library handing out baked goods. Although understandable that many students are too busy to properly engage with university democracy, it’s a sad reflection of a broader decline in student political culture; an aspect of university life which has a long and significant history.

Student politics is itself an ambiguous term, encompassing a broad range of political activities from democracy, societies, and activism. From the 1960s in the UK, students developed a reputation for being politically active and engaged with the social, political, and cultural contexts in which they study. They were vocal in the political scene, particularly regarding political activism, asserting themselves as individuals and a collective to reflect wider developments in youth culture. This activism was heavily associated with student democracy through the National Union of Students (NUS), reflecting the historical significance of student elections.

In the current context of the Students’ Association Elections (taking place today and tomorrow), it seems necessary to first approach the topic of student democracy, one with which many students are relatively unfamiliar. St Andrews’ Students Association was founded in 1885 and was composed of the Students’ Representative Council and the Student Activities Forum. From 1889, the Students Representative Council became the legal representative body for students at the university. Currently, the Students’ Association comprises a student-majority board and six full-time Sabbatical Officers. Elected in Semester 2, all matriculated students are eligible to run and the elections are overseen by the Elections Committee. Significantly for St Andrews, the Students’ Union is not affiliated with the NUS. Debates over NUS membership have been contentious in St Andrews, with referendums taken in 2001 and 2012. In 2001, the referendum was postponed after allegations that both sides of the debate were breaking budget rules. One article in The Independent at the time highlighted the significance of these debates, albeit largely because it gave them an excuse to talk about the impact for Prince William which as most of us know is the only news-worthy aspect of St Andrews. The 2012 referendum saw an overwhelming rejection of NUS membership as out of 2353 votes cast, 1763 voted No and only 590 voted yes. A key issue surrounding debates is the lack of student engagement or interest with formal student democracy, something indicative of the broader decline in student political culture.


In the UK, students’ unions have historically had both local and national importance, with the NUS representing 600 Higher Education institutions comprising 7 million students. Although it adopted an apolitical consensus post-WWII, this was challenged in the 1960s and 1970s, with the post-war ‘no politics’ clause being dropped to support student protests against the Vietnam War. This ushered in a new era of politicisation, with the NUS renewing its links to communism and establishing associations with liberation campaigns of the 1970s. As the first national group to promote homosexual rights, the NUS took pride in its deliberately political positions, reflecting the politicised nature of society at the time but also the significance of unions and the increasingly distinctive nature of student, or ‘campus’, culture. It was during this time that the No Platform policy was adopted which aimed to stifle speech considered to be fascist or racist. Remaining a hot topic in subsequent decades, the conflict between perceived notions of freedom of speech and hate speech make evident the history of such debates, extending long before the supposedly ‘politically correct’ culture of campuses today. However, the established connections between the NUS and political protests were severely limited after the Education Act 1994 declared the purpose of the union to be the promotion of the interests of members as students.


In the 21st Century, the NUS and students’ unions as a whole have been less politically engaged in relation to contemporary events. However, the 2010 General Election demonstrated the potential for student engagement with issues directly relating to their education after the increase in tuition fees. Following the Liberal Democrat’s betrayal of their manifesto promise not to increase tuition fees, students organised the largest political demonstration since the anti-Iraq War protests. Asserting their rights to affordable education, the issue mobilised students politically and revealed that the NUS could still have political influence. Here, students were able to unite in solidarity with one another as part of a broader community who were all affected by a contemporary political issue.


In the UK, students also retain a particular significance as a voting demographic, constituting a significant proportion of the young people’s vote now that over 50% of 18 to 21-year-olds go to university. The congregation of students in certain areas also means that some constituencies are considered ‘student seats’. From Liverpool to Nottingham, to Bournemouth West, these 77 constituencies are attributed the label ‘student seat’ when over 10% of the voting-age population are students. Many of these seats in England unsurprisingly favour Labour, with students being equated with the overall youth vote, whilst in Wales and Scotland 8 of the 12 ‘student seats’ were won by Plaid Cymru or the SNP respectively. Students also, unless they drop out, go on to become adults with a degree, forming a distinctive part of voting analyses as education level can be a significant factor in voting.


Students’ political participation can be influential, as in the 2010 General Election and beyond, with tuition fees continuing to be a political sticking point for parties ever since. In the 2017 and 2019 elections Labour proposed to scrap tuition fees, with other parties offering alternative systems including a Conservative proposal to change fees depending on the course. In Scotland, youth participation in the Scottish Independence Referendum in 2014 surprised many, particularly as 77% of 16 and 17-year-olds registered went to the polls. All UK and EU students living in their term-time addresses at the time of the referendum were also allowed a vote, making universities sites of debate and contention in a crucial political debate. These debates continue in St Andrews, with a dedicated society ‘St Andrews University Student for Independence’. Societies are also another political outlet for students to express their views and opinions and it is through these societies that many advance and go on to take positions in the Students’ Association.


Although many choose not to engage with aspects of formal student democracy, politics is impossible to avoid on university campuses. Remnants of student political culture in activism and protest remain and are taken up when a prevailing mood or dominant issue manages to capture the student consciousness. The Climate Strikes over the past few years are one example of students utilising their ability to organise to send a political message, with universities around the world holding their own marches and demonstrations. The visibility of this form of political action makes it much more appealing to many than the intricacies of university bureaucracy that the Students’ Association deal with. Despite this, it is worth trying to engage with our only form of student democracy, even if it does mean reading a Facebook post (or an article in The Saint). If only for the convenience of voting online instead of dragging yourself to a local primary school in the rain for a local council election, it is worth pressing a few buttons to have some influence over decisions being made about your university experience.




Illustration: Bethany Morton


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