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.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.