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Apolitical AUT

Apolitical AUT: What we could learn from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Debate’s Dan Brunskill gives AUT a D- for political engagement

When I started as news editor at Debate, I set up a Google alert to let me know every time the phrase ‘students at AUT’ was mentioned online. I expected this alert to bring me a steady stream of interesting occurrences happening on campus. I didn’t really find anything interesting. What I did find, however, is a university in Greece (the motherland of democracy), called the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, or AUT for short.

According to local news reports, several times this year, a group of angry students have literally stormed the office of the university’s Rectorate (the equivalent of our vice-chancellor) “shouting insults and threatening employees, professors and the Rector”.

According to AUT (that’s the Aristotle University, not our one), the students punched a professor and threatened to throw him out a window. So, what’s got the students of Thessaloniki so fired up? They want to be allowed to attend the university’s senate meetings. That’s it. Currently, the meetings are open only to the senate and some student representatives.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to understand the nuance of Greek student politics. But when I read this story, I kept asking myself: ‘Would AUT students storm the vice-chancellor’s office to demand anything?’. We don’t have to look as far afield as Greece to see student activists taking on university executives. We need only to look across to Wellesley Street at our close frenemy The University of Auckland.

In May of 2017, a group of 13 UoA students staged a ‘sit-in’ protest outside the door of the Vice-Chancellor's office, demanding the university divest from fossil fuels. The students held their ground for 12 hours, before being removed by police. This sort of activism never occurs at AUT. The most dramatic political event at AUT during my time is the petition to disaffiliate the pro-life club, which has just 300 signatures.

Voting numbers for student representatives is astronomically low and the AUTSA ordinary general meeting failed because it couldn’t gather together the required 30 students to present its audited accounts to. I can’t tell you why it is, but AUT students seem to be unconcerned with political life. Other universities, at least, appear more fired up. Traditionally, student protest movements have been a tremendous force in national politics.

The opposition to apartheid rugby teams touring New Zealand in 1981 was a student lead movement, as was the nuclear free movement and the USA’s anti-Vietnam war protests. When I watched ‘Extinction Rebellion’ block Queen Street to protest inaction on climate change earlier this year, the rebellious revolutionaries were mostly elderly people, with few young people to be seen.

High school students lay down in the streets for the ‘School Strike for Climate’, while university students sat quietly in the library. We live in a dynamic and changing time for politics. We have an opportunity to shape that change, but only if we engage.

Here’s how you can start: vote for student representatives in the AUTSA elections in September/October. Try to choose the candidate most likely to enact some change, not who’s cutest on Instagram. The SRC should be an active force, constantly listening to and improving the life of students on campus. It’s up to you to hold them accountable to this.

I’ve had a number of students express concern to me over the pro life club, which the current SRC affiliated. This upcoming election is a chance to have influence over these types of decisions. You could elect a student council who may want to disaffiliate them. Or, if you support the pro life club, you may want to vote for a candidate that will protect their affiliation.

The last thing I want to do is to tell you how to vote, but I do want to say that you should vote.

We could learn a lesson from our Greek cousins, not about threatening to throw university staff out windows, but about taking university politics a little more seriously. It’d be a good start.

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