Life as a socialist at university

Life as a socialist at university

I’m a student at Exeter University, just graduating from doing history and politics but planning to continue my studies in MA history. Exeter is a university in the Russell Group and was a few years ago named the Sunday Times university of the year. It is cementing its status as an ‘elite’ university along with the rest of the Russell Group. The ‘stereotypical’ Exeter student is right wing, middle class, white, and in exactly the right place for that future job in Goldman Sachs or a top-end law firm. Exeter boasts many famous alumni, including Katie Hopkins and Andrew Lansley, and it was once described by Emma Thompson as a place that the BNP would love.

This reputation of Exeter University – while there is a grain of truth in it – masks the realities of life and experiences of many students here, including me. Granted I wouldn’t describe myself in the slightest as the ‘stereotypical’ student at Exeter, I’m not the only one. The stereotype for Exeter and its students is just that: a stereotype. Beneath the image of Exeter that’s projected to world is a much more diverse reality. In places at least

When I first moved here to start my course in 2011, what was really striking was the amount of stuff going on run by students themselves through student societies. Although my politics weren’t as developed as they are now, it was definitely something I was interested in and had been for a long time. Exeter had student societies for all the main parties, a group for the libertarian Freedom Association, a non-partisan politics society, and a small Socialist Students group linked to the Socialist Party. My first few months were spent mostly on course work, non-political societies like the games society and sci-fi soc, and Labour Students. For someone who hadn’t been previously been exposed to anything of the like, the autonomy I had over my life was quite something!

Though it was only when the Occupy movement came to the UK that I really began to engage with socialist and then anarchist politics: the Socialist Students group on campus was small and passed me by mostly. Through Occupy I encountered people from all walks of life (different social classes, ideologies, life experiences, etc.) and this had a profound impact on me personally. I took part in my first direct actions, wrote press releases, organised activist meetings, squatted, and developed most of what forms my politics today. By being involved in Occupy Exeter I saw a city from outside the student bubble: locals weren’t ‘locals’ there just to get gratuitously annoyed at me when I walk home drunk through their streets at 2 in the morning but friends and comrades. At Occupy Exeter’s height, university seemed far more alien to me (and you can read this in my attendance sheets for classes that year) than the rest of Exeter. I was taken aback when I heard of one student who in a year and a half of being in Exeter hadn’t visited Exeter’s quay (or much else of the city probably). What really got to me at times though was the apathy to politics or a world outside of university and career prospects that seemed rife within that student bubble.

I only properly got involved with the Socialist Students group on campus through organising a student demonstration with them as an Occupier. In the years since I’ve been on and off its committee, campaigned, occupied and above all made friends with a bunch of people who despise the student bubble and apathy as much as I do. Exeter Socialist Students has grown tremendously since I first joined it to having a core group of several dozen and a periphery of far too many to mention. The society has a life of its own with the majority of the membership outside the Socialist Party and outside of the left-wing infighting that plagues the larger activist centres. I’ve encountered so many inspiring people in and out of the Socialist Students group who’ve fought against everything from mental health stigma to racism to capitalism. Whether the fight’s for free education, Palestine, or organising a Reclaim the Night march, it shows just how inaccurate the Exeter stereotype can be.

I came out of university with a solid 2:1, narrowly missing a first, but happy I struck a good balance between my course and everything I’ve done (especially the activism) outside of my course while I’ve been here. While I have put a fairly positive spin on what Exeter’s like, and for reasons I mentioned at the start it definitely can be a difficult place to be left wing (or more broadly to actually give a shit), but I’d say that just means our work’s cut out for us as socialists.

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