Welcome to a new forum for students

Students are constantly being portrayed as apathetic, as blind consumers of bland 'tick a box and yo

When I heard the New Statesman was relaunching its website and devoting part of it to campus activism and the issues that affect and inspire students, I was pleased to accept the opportunity to write for it.

Actually scrap that very polite start - not exactly hard-hitting for a radical. Truth is I bloody jumped at the chance. Students are constantly being portrayed as apathetic, as blind consumers of bland 'tick a box and you'll get a job-style higher education' - not to mention maxing out their credit cards when they're not snoozing till midday or stumbling home blind drunk.

Yes ok, some students enjoy a pint or two but there are also active feminists, environmentalists, gay rights campaigners and other politicos. Thousands upon thousands of us joined the call to Make Poverty History, thousands of us form a key part of the anti-war movement and apart from our proud history of social and international campaigning, students have also shown themselves instrumental in taking action on campus-specific issues. Like when Frank Ellis, a lecturer at Leeds university, commented that black people are inferior to white people.

At that point the NUS Anti-Racism/Anti Fascism committee and the student population at Leeds took action. They stood up and fought for his dismissal on the grounds that all students have a right to study in an environment free from discrimination. And their actions had an undeniable impact, with Dr. Ellis being suspended for breach of the Race Relations Act.

 

Radical canvas?

 

Time and time again students protest about campus closures, course closures, library closures, halls privatisations and sell offs and in support of our staff - we don't always win, but we always try. These and countless examples of other action go unreported. The point is that students defending resources, standing up to on-campus racism and lobbying the international community are all part of the 'radical' canvas - the activism and ideas that will make this site a cracking read and a sparring ground.

As the president of the NUS and as a former women's officer at Liverpool John Moore's university my personal connection to the concept of campus activism might seem obvious. NUS has traditionally fought for the rights of students and has been the seat of angry student voices through the years, not to mention being the former stomping ground of some rather politically engaged public figures. Jack Straw, Charles Clarke started here as long-haired lefties (whatever went wrong eh?).

Now more than ever NUS is urging students to get active to protect their rights. We think that students need to protect their right to education on the basis of ability not affluence, to protect and promote their rights to demand excellence for their money and to negotiate decent pay and conditions as they enter the seemingly inevitable part time job market to make ends meet. As I'm writing this, ministers are muttering that Muslim students shouldn't wear the veil on campus, and they are proposing that lecturers should 'monitor' students who they suspect of extremism. Protecting our right to expression and fighting to keep our campuses free of the racism, fear and suspicion that flies in the face of civil liberties is part of the brief of the 'radical'.

Anger over top-up fees led thousands onto the streets of London to support the NUS Admission: Impossible campaign. The halcyon days of free education are over. But surely when Tony Blair (who got one of those much yearned after free degrees) made his commitment to 'education, education, education' ten years ago he didn't intend to add a footnote 'for those who can afford it' - which is exactly what his government have instituted with their variable fees.

 

Make your voices heard

 

That a market is creeping into the sector, swaying students’ choices and creating a crude bums on seats marketing drive by some universities will no doubt take up some room on these pages. That student 'customers' are being gagged by unfair contracts will feature if NUS has anything to do with it. And they are the ones that even get into Higher Education. This year alone there are around 15,000 less students are going to University, our fear is this trend will continue, with some students priced out of education for ever.

Hopefully, what will come out of these pages is an expression of the diversity of student activity and opinion as well as the new challenges that students are facing. The Vietnam war and anti-apartheid marches were easier when education was free and one in five of us weren't in part time jobs. But we still march, lobby and make our voices heard. On this site we'll hopefully hear as much from part-time students, mature students, and students in FE whom the NUS are helping empower to shape their own education. Campus radicals ... bring it on.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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