Campus activism: understanding cross-faculty solidarity (or the lack of it)

STEM students are under-represented, unheard, and disillusioned with what is a massive part of campus life.

There are clear disparities between students who actively participate in student politics, campus activism, and collective organising, and students who do not. It’s not so much about differences in politics and beliefs, but the perception that student politics is an impenetrable world that is inaccessible or unwelcoming. It is seen as an insular space for issues that could matter to these students but are not efficiently communicated, nor met with genuine connections beyond a hasty, impersonal stupol-campaign-related Facebook message. 

Based on the University of Sydney’s Annual Report, there were 29,491 students* enrolled in STEM degrees in 2020, out of the total 60,860 enrollments. With 48.45% of the student population being STEM students, it’s disappointing that they are under-represented, unheard, and disillusioned with what is a massive part of campus life. 

Many of these students are unaware of the essential — and free — services that the Student Representative Council (SRC) provides. They are not aware of the free caseworkers, legal assistance, rental assistance, support networks, food programs, and mutual aid programs that it offers. These students are unaware of spaces such as the (albeit inactive) International Students’ Hub, Wom*n’s Space and Queer Space. Students are unsure of what Councillors and Office Bearers of the SRC do, what the collective spaces fight for, what our USU Board Directors represent, and what other student representatives do in the interests of students. 

A survey undertaken for the purpose of this survey demonstrated that undergraduate students currently enrolled in degrees within the Faculty of Science, Engineering, or both found that 60% of respondents felt unheard by their student leaders. 

Despite the majority of respondents feeling unheard by their student leaders, the majority still believes that the presence of such spaces and activities could make a difference to student life. They do not deny their importance and impact. 

The question then comes down to a lack of participation. What would need to change within these spaces to encourage STEM students to take part in activism? A long-response question was posited in the survey, to which all respondents had plenty to contribute: 

 “What would make you want to get involved in campus activism/student politics?” 

“If they made sense…If ‘activists’ (I use inverted commas because often it seems like they want to look like activists rather than effect any change) attempted to make rational, calculated and constructive strides towards achieving goals, I could see myself lending support.” 

“A more welcoming activist environment. I’m kind of scared off at the minute.” 

“…if Stupol could provide something other than what the existing system fails to provide, I would consider getting involved.” 

“I’m super passionate about heaps of these things but people I have met in these spaces make it really unpleasant…I would want to get involved in activism/stupol if it weren’t so toxic”

“Less polarised, selfish approach to activism…Often the activists are doing more harm with their highly polarised, accusatory and hostile perspectives. Everyone should have an equal voice.” 

It’s not that these students are any less left-wing or ‘radical’ than other students. It’s not that they don’t care about climate change, or ending sexual violence on campus, or fighting for refugee rights. Instead, it’s the belief that political groups and collectives on campus are not geared towards them and continue to be insular spaces. Many perceive that severe knowledge gaps create unproductive environments that are not conducive to healthy discourse, and in worst-case scenarios, become hostile. 

When asked, Do you feel like this [the culture] could change? How? Respondents provided their own insights, as people not involved in these spaces, on how best they might be enticed to get involved: 

“There would need to be very strict accountability and transparency measures. I always read and hear about SRC Councillors not showing up and Board Directors not delivering on promises, and it is extremely disappointing. Sometimes I think that some people are just performative and just pretending so that they can earn positions”

“No, I don’t think this could change. I think these spaces are very insular and don’t have a good idea about the views or priorities of most students.” 

“I’m not sure, I don’t see the activism/stupol communities becoming more open-minded and respectful of other opinions and beliefs.” 

“…knowledge-based outreach: often, there’s an assumed prerequisite of knowledge that can act as a barrier of entry to those new to activism.” 

Amongst students that shared their personal experiences, there seemed to be a collective response: activism is well and good, but here at the University of Sydney, it might just not be for them. The student fight should not be limited to people from certain social circles or degrees but should incorporate as many, varying and diverse student voices as possible. Some prominent figures within the USYD STEM community shared their thoughts** on this topic: 

Emily Storey, Sydney University Women in Engineering Society (SUWIE) President and incoming SRC Vice-President, posits that this might be a gendered issue. She calls engineering a “boys club” and that the “lack of women and gender diverse people in engineering is the direct cause of the lack of participation [in stupol and activism].” 

“The levels of harassment and assault against women are higher than any other faculty, same with the levels of racism and homophobia,” Storey says. “It’s often that these people are the loudest, and it’s so discouraging to anyone who doesn’t think that way. It’s isolating.” 

Angus Waldon, President of the Science Society, spoke to the reason as to why STEM societies might not be as involved in campus activism: 

‘I believe that STEM societies feel quite acutely the need to deliver a quality student experience to their members which has traditionally been achieved through the focus on social activities and peer networking. I believe the common perception amongst STEM society executives and members is that activism is important, but as an expression of one’s individual obligations as a citizen and university student.”

Waldon has previously been involved in the fight against the cuts, supported and attended the “Save Medical Science” campaigns last year, despite heavy police presence.

The testaments are clear. STEM students want to be involved. Now, it is just a matter of reaching out, speaking meaningfully to the entire student community and sharing passions and concerns throughout various spaces. 

2022 will be a crucial year for the student movement. With a federal election, Enterprise Agreement negotiations that will determine staff salaries and working conditions, attacks against students and staff through course cuts, the looming climate crisis, the recovery from COVID-19 and much more, we must all band together now more than ever. A mass student movement cannot be achieved by the few but must include the voices and actions of many. There is power in diversity and whilst the inclusion of STEM students might not be the easiest task, it will surely be a worthwhile one. 

* Calculated based on the addition of students enrolled under the Faculty of Science, Faculty of Medicine and Health & the Faculty of Engineering. This does not include students who take Science units as an elective.

**The thoughts of the quoted individuals are entirely their own personal views and are not reflective of the collective beliefs of the groups they lead or represent. I thank them for their participation and willingness to be quoted in this article.