Exploring participation and non-participation in the 2010/11 student protests against fees and cuts
Hensby, Alexander Richard
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This research project uses the 2010/11 student protests in the UK as a case study to understand why certain individuals mobilise for forms of political participation and activism and why others do not. The student protests are ideal as a case study of participation and non-participation for a number of reasons. The UK Government’s proposal to treble the cap tuition fees for students in England represented an issue of widespread grievance for the student population, a grievance which was compounded for many by the Liberal Democrats’ decision to u-turn on its 2010 election campaign pledge. The student response featured large-scale regional and national demonstrations, as well as the formation of a network of simultaneous campus occupations across the UK, arguably presenting a greater scale and diversity of protest than had been seen for a generation. Despite these multiple participatory opportunities, however, student participation did not come close to matching the scale of opposition to trebled fees and university funding cuts as articulated in surveys. This raises fundamental questions about the social and political differences between participants and non-participants. Using original survey data of students from 22 UK universities, and 56 in-depth interviews with students from 6 universities, this research examines social and political patterns and relations between high, medium and low-cost/risk participants, and non-participants. Taking into account the idea of the university campus as a network of actors, the research posits that networks may preclude as well as facilitate participation. The research studies in detail the formation and maintenance of student activism networks – including their collective identifications and dis-identifications. Conversely, the study also looks at the social networks of non-participants, and how these may help to socially produce and sustain non-participation at an agency level. Finally, the research considers whether the protests against fees and cuts should be seen as a unified movement, and whether student attitudes taken together reveal a broadly-identifiable ‘participatory ideal’.