Hundreds of student activists from across Britain have spent the weekend in Manchester exploring their response to global challenges such as climate change and corporate power. The gathering follows a year which has seen a resurgence in student activism at universities around the country.
The event, entitled Shared Planet, takes place annually, but there was a distinct sense of excitement and urgency to this year's gathering as students built up to next month's climate summit in Copenhagen.
The world economic crisis was another dominant theme, with the launch of a major new campaign on corporate power, aiming to convince universities “to respect human rights throughout their supply chains, from field to factory to student union shops”.
2009 has seen a sharp growth in campus campaigning. Early in the year, several universities saw an explosion in direct action, with a particular focus on universities' links with the arms trade and with companies involved in the Israeli assault on Gaza. Following the Methodist Youth Assembly last week, the Methodist Church declared that “the age of apathy seems to be over”.
The Shared Planet gathering was organised by the student campaigning network People & Planet and included both experienced activists and people entirely new to campaigning. It was described as a chance to “learn skills, find positive solutions and hold our leaders to account for a just and sustainable future for our generation”.
Speakers included Ann Pettifor, founder of Jubilee 2000, along with lawyer Rosa Curling and television presenter Stacey Dooley. They were joined by international campaigners from Bangladesh, the USA, Honduras and the Canadian indigenous rights movement. Training workshops enabled students to gain skills in areas such as media engagement and political lobbying.
Campaigning groups including War on Want and the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) ran stalls at the event. Organisations represented included Christian groups such as the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the Speak Network.
“It's a great atmosphere”, said Amy James, 19, from Loughborough University, “It makes me feel that I'm part of a wider movement, not just an individual”.
She told Ekklesia that “The student movement is a very powerful force”.
People & Planet's campaigning in recent years has led to 85 universities employing dedicated environmental officers. In addition, around 80 universities and schools have been awarded Fairtrade status. The organisation is also credited with an important role in the succesful campaign against the proposed coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth.
The Student Christian Movement (SCM) is expecting a strong turnout for its own annual conference, planned for February with the title Living It Out. It will allow students to consider “spirituality, vocation, activism and mission”.