Universities and colleges have become sites of debate and discussions as tens of thousands of students question the basis of society in the face of deep economic turmoil.
“I think the economic crisis has changed the questions people ask,” says Katie Jones, a second year student at Leeds university.
“When it looks like things are going well, people don’t question the system much. But when something happens on the scale of the current crisis, people ask what’s going on.”
Katie joined other students at a meeting last week organised by the university’s Socialist Worker Student Society (SWSS) group to discuss the topic of Marxism versus the market.
Many of those who came had not been to a political meeting before. Similar meetings have taken place on campuses up and down the country.
The Leeds event included a lively discussion about what is wrong with the capitalist system and whether there can be an alternative to it.
After the meeting several of the students spoke to Socialist Worker about the impact of the economic crisis.
Joel Baker and Pardeep Nijjar are first year students who came across SWSS at the university freshers’ fair.
“I’m not happy with our current society,” says Joel. “I believe we need action to change things. I struggle with the idea that we could let people starve – that really gets me. Sometimes I feel kind of helpless about it.
“We live in a society that is completely dog eat dog. I would love to live in a society where people cared for each other – one based on compassion.”
Pardeep says that before he came to university he already thought that there was something very wrong with the world, but that the discussions he has had in the past two weeks have really opened his eyes.
“Up until recently I’ve always accepted that capitalism is the only way, but we need to find alternative ways of running things that are fairer and more equitable. The whole issue of war is important too.
“University is a chance to make what you want of your life. You can sit back, blend in and do what everyone else is doing or you can fight for what you believe in and campaign for it – that’s what I plan to do.”
Joel says that he thinks the economic crisis will have an impact on students. “What will happen out of it I don’t know,” he adds. “I hope it will shake things up.”
Third year geography student Vicky Habermehl agrees.
“I think there’s a split in students’ responses to the economic crisis,” she explains. “Some of my friends say we’ll be the least affected – we’ll still have loans, food might be more expensive but we can get by on beans on toast.
“But then others are getting really worried. There’s a big push, certainly on my course, to get a job with a big company that’s seen as a ‘graduate job’. People are worried about entering the job market in a recession.
“I don’t know how that will make people react. But I think the crisis is already making people ask questions about how we live and work – people who wouldn’t have before.”
Like many at the meeting, Vicky is concerned about the destructive impact that capitalism is having on the environment.
“I think we need to look at the environment from a totally different perspective to the government’s focus on market solutions. Throughout the whole world we need a more cooperative system.
“Even if you think capitalism is a good idea and that markets are good, they may not be able to recover. So maybe we need to find other ways of working. The enormity of the problems we face may spur people into looking at new ways of doing things.”
Samuel Thompson, a second year international relations student, said, “The events of the last couple of weeks mean there is an opportunity for the capitalist system as we know it to change.
“I’m not necessarily advocating a Marxist reform of it, but I think some of Marx’s ideas are good and I wanted to see a new perspective.
“I think gross inequality is the biggest problem with capitalism. I would like to see a redistribution of wealth. I am also a globalist – I believe in no boundaries. I would put more of an emphasis on humanity, not on nations.
“I would like to see a better quality of life for workers. Capitalism is more advanced in the West and people are more disillusioned with their lives – not so much in an economic but in a social way. There’s a lack of meaning and achievement.”
All the students were keen to discuss what they can do to shape events. Katie said that she had joined the Socialist Workers Party a few weeks ago:
“I am optimistic about the future. Things could go either way, but I think that if we pull our finger out and get organised, we can make a big difference to what happens. The stakes are very high.”