University Activism at AUC: Should We Follow the Irish Example?

By Helen Conway

Editor’s note: This news story is part of a collaboration between The Herring and AUC’s journalism course. The story was entirely reported, written, edited, and fact checked by members of the journalism course. Some material may have been altered by The Herring’s editors to fit its style guidelines.

Upon arriving at AUC as an exchange student from Dublin, I was unsurprised to discover that student activism is a prominent component of student life. As previously reported by The Herring, the Amsterdam Women’s March held on March 11th saw a significant number of AUC take to the streets. Shortly before the march, the Diversity and Outreach Student working group held a forum on March 2nd where representatives from Dutch political parties came to discuss the recent general election with AUC students. The newly established Diversity Commission shows further emphasis to increase campus awareness of social issues and campaigns.

The way in which AUC students mobilise is different than the UK and Ireland, where universities are taking a more official approach to student activism. Their student unions are letting the students decide what stance the university as an institution should take on referendums, public polls and issues of national concern.

At the Amsterdam Women’s March there was no official AUC banner for students to walk under as a unified entity and no option of organized collective transport method to and from the event. When asked whether this sort of organization would work at AUC, second-year Humanities student Hero Scott says she understands the appeal. “The discussions [it would] create would be beneficial,” she says. “It would maybe make more of an impact if the whole school said this is what we support.”

However, some students who attended the march think this may not have been necessary. First year Humanities student Nina Klaff says: “I don’t know how I’d feel about an AUC banner… Part of the fun of the march was seeing what banners people chose to express themselves through.”

According to students, the sense of collectivity within AUC is strong and efforts made to include universities in these campaigns on an official level, may not work. Klaff thinks that official means of protest might have given the wrong impression. “Having a homogenised statement, or having to act as representatives of the university, would [have] possibly nullified that,” Klaff says in reference to the diverse ways in which students got involved in the march.

Mandated campaign involvement can have a positive impact in cases where student opinion is unanimous. During Ireland’s lead up to the (ultimately successful) same-sex marriage referendum in March 2015, University College Dublin voted to back the “Yes” (pro-marriage equality) campaign by an overwhelming majority of 97%. The outcome, as mandated by the UCD’s constitution, became their official position on the matter. What followed was a university seat at citizen’s assemblies on the upcoming referendum, mandatory appearance of student union representatives at organised rallies and marches, and an effort to further the cause on campus.

“The UCDSU marriage equality referendum is a good example of how this [mandate] works positively to engage students,” says Lexi Kilmartin, UCD’s Education Officer. “It also adds weight behind the cause when we can stand up and say in marches or to TDs [politicians] … that the students of UCD voted overwhelmingly in favour of marriage equality.”

On March 9th, UCD called a vote that decided the university will take a pro-unification stance if the Republic of Ireland calls a referendum for reunification with Northern Ireland. The issue was far more divisive among students, causing animosity due to a 63.1% vote in favour of reunification, but only 3,162 students who voted, of a student body population of over 32,900. This has led to debate over whether university-mandated campaigning can be an accurate gauge of how active and passionate students are regarding socio-political matters.

This also leads to the question of whether AUC, where 48% of the student body is comprised of international students, would be able to elicit a sense of collectivity on issues of national concern. UK native Scott responds to this from the perspective of a non-Dutch AUC student. “I think it’s great that you can go and protest for something that’s global,” she says, referring to the women’s march. “But there are some situations where the issue is a Dutch issue … most students don’t vote here, for instance.”

The measures taken to create a forum for socio-economic discussion and involvement within AUC are clear. However, with other European universities making a rigorous effort to have student voices echo not just within the confines of the university halls but around public assemblies and parliamentary chambers as a unified voice, perhaps this is something to consider on issues that AUC consider to be of collective importance.

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