Student media has gone hand-in-hand with campaigning for as long as there’s been student newspapers and magazines. Whether it’s campaigning for small changes to life on campus, vital improvements to mental health services, or supporting nationwide campaigns like the National Student Survey boycott in 2017, student media has a track record of campaigning, and giving a leg-up to student campaigns.
Now though, their ability to do just that is under threat from funding cuts, difficulties in carrying out journalism, and a tough time attracting new members, all as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the Student Publication Association, we represent over 125 student newspapers,
magazines and websites around the UK and Republic of Ireland, and when we
asked them how the pandemic had left them feeling, there was a broad consensus: they’re worried about the future, and how they’ll continue to operate.
60% of members said they were concerned that the pandemic would impact on their ability to conduct journalism, nearly 95% said they were afraid previous levels of funding from their students’ union would never be restored, and – perhaps most shockingly of all – over half feared they could cease publishing altogether within 12 months.
The implications of these statistics are momentous: there is a serious risk that
student campaigns will struggle to build the momentum they need to effect far-
reaching change; the next generation of journalists will find it harder to develop the skills they need to break into an elite industry; and campus institutions won’t be subjected to the full-throated democratic accountability they’ve been used to.
A democratic, inclusive university campus needs a well-funded, well-supported
student media environment to thrive. Holding universities and students’ unions to account, giving a voice to the voiceless, and elevating campaigns to due attention are all vital functions student publications – particularly newspapers – can play. That’s without detailing the worthy spotlight publications can shine on individual students’ achievements. But with the range of problems facing the hundreds of student publications around the country, their ability to do all this is at risk.
So, too, is their ability to report on and support campaigns, which is something
firmly believe is right to do from time to time. During my time at Forge Press, the
University of Sheffield’s independent student newspaper, as both Head of News and Editor-in-Chief, we voted to support the University and College Union strikes twice, and I stand by that decision. Student media should have a conscience, and if they believe the best way to represent students on campus, and in the wider community, is by throwing their weight behind a campaign, on behalf of their students, then all power to them.
But without a well-funded student media, their ability to take a stand, and support and report on campaigns, is under threat. This is a fact which should concern all in higher education, whether you just joined as a fresher in September, or you’re a Vice-Chancellor at a Russell Group university. Like it or not, student media is a vital part of thousands of people’s time at university, and without it, their capacity to develop new skills, or to break into a highly elite, connections-based industry after they’ve graduated, is severely hampered.
I have no doubt that student publications and student-led campaigns will continue to adapt in the face of unprecedented challenges posed by the ongoing public health and economic crises. The last eight months have shown how resilient and talented all students are, and it is to their credit that mistreatment of students has been exposed since the reopening of campuses in September, when perhaps, without an active student media, they wouldn’t have been.
To ensure the future of student media, and the range of opportunities they present to writers and editors, is stable, universities and students’ unions must commit to restoring funding of publications to pre-pandemic levels as soon as is practicable. We’re not calling for the immediate restoration of funding, because we know these are difficult times for all in higher education.
But we are asking campus institutions to be open and honest with student
publications within their remit, and to support them as they face tough challenges in the weeks and months ahead. Any student publication who believes they aren’t receiving this from their university or students’ union is welcome to contact us and ask for our help in resolving this.
In the meantime, we’ll continue fighting the corner of student newspapers, magazines and websites, and ensure that when all this is over, our members have the resources to continue holding institutions to account, and campaigning for change on campus.
Ben Warner is the Chair of the Student Publication Association.