A spotlight on student activism

Lucie Rondeau examines the role of student protests and political movements

Art by Caroline McKeon

This year marks fifty years since 1968, widely considered as the apex of student activism. Whilst certain states, such as France, are currently considering to what extent they should commemorate the momentous social movements that took place that year, how does student activism fare in our current globalised world?

Commentators and sociologists currently agree to describe the early twenty-first century as a “Renaissance of Student Activism”, a phrase penned by Alia Wong in The Atlantic in 2015. Last year, UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that, in the US, nearly 1 in 10 incoming first-year students deemed themselves very likely to take part in protests while in college. It was the highest figure ever recorded since the study began to run in 1967, but it comes as no surprise when you consider the number of demonstrations on US campuses these days, whether about student debts, race issues or questioning college sex culture.

The 2017 data is yet unpublished but it seems probable that the controversial first year of the Trump administration will see a new rise in student eagerness to protest. If comparable and precise figures are not available for other countries, the resurrection of student movements can be noted worldwide. In the last decade, in a general context of economic austerity and privatization of higher education, massive student movements took place in countless countries, including United Kingdom (2010), Chile (2011 – 2013), Canada (2012) or Hong Kong (since 2012).

In his 2013 book Student Resistance, Professor Mark E. Boren argued that student activism was as old as universities themselves and undertook to tell its development since the Middle Ages. However, it is not before the twentieth century that students began to account for a significant portion of world society, thanks to the democratization of higher education, a worldwide if uneven phenomenon.

It is therefore mostly in the course of the last century that it has been asserted that student movements have spearheaded many historic dynamics. As soon as 1919, students were already leading the fight against imperialism and for nationalism in East Asia. It is Chinese students that denounced on May 4th of that year the European grip on their country, just as the Korean students had asked two months before for the immediate end of Japanese colonisation. The year before, a “University Revolution” had already taken place in Argentina, when students had succeeded in securing the modernisation of their education system. Iconic events, such as the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the second Prague Spring of 1969 and the Iranian Revolution of 1978-1979 – which was not univocally islamic at the beginning – all started with students taking to the streets, singly or collectively.

Today as in the past, student activism is extremely diverse and remains strongly dependent on national contexts, even if many convergences have been noted and multinational campaigns, such as “Rhodes Must Fall” in 2015, turned out to be successful. Even in 1968, when on American, German, French, Mexican and Japanese campuses, students were echoing each other and all urging for the end of Vietnam War, as well as for the liberalization of society, the achievements made were mainly local. In Beyond the Promised Land, David F. Noble, himself a student activist in the sixties, affirms that, contrary to popular belief, the most concrete outcome of student activism was not the end of the Vietnam War — that cannot be seriously attributed solely to the campus demonstrations. It is rather that the sixties demonstrations led to the end of curfews, codes of conduct and on-campus sexual and racial separations, as well as to a rise in freedom of expression and student power in college governance. It is for these achievements that student activism ought to be remembered and celebrated. The basic recognition of the right to have political opinions considered as worthy as those of the “adults” is still a major student demand in some parts of the world: since 1971, Malaysian students have been asking for the ban of the law preventing them to associate with political parties not in power during their studies.

It is because we do not let it be reduced to mere “solidarity” with remote places and unknown people nor be caricatured as a strictly abstract pursuit that student activism has mattered, and still matters today. Recent years have proved that it could still enjoy some success in universities – for instance in 2012, the Quebec government had to renounce a sudden seventy-five-per-cent hike in tuition fees because of student demonstrations – as well as outside of campus – you can think of the impact of global movement of divestment.

Student activism, however, frequently comes under the scrutiny of conservative media, blaming it for emanating from privileged and pampered college kids. Such criticism does not take into account that universities are not just “liberal bubbles” immune to the gender, race and social fractures that shape our societies. Furthermore, in many developing countries where universities are less populated than in Western countries, student activism nevertheless exists, mostly performed by high-school students. That is why it seems artificial to separate university student activism from the other forms of youth activism. For example, if Spanish social movements have strengthened during the 2010s it is not thanks to the students or to the young unemployed but rather their collaboration.

If student activism has a weakness, it is therefore not its alleged disconnection from the rest of society but its essentially ephemeral nature. No one stays a student for more than a few years, and every college activist is faced with the question of what comes after that intense yet short period of his or her life. In that respect, the leaders of the “Umbrella movement” that took place in Hong-Kong in 2014 have shown a possible solution. Moving away from school, they willingly decided to stop the activity of their very successful student association, Scholarism, and went on to form a political party, Demotisto. Yet, they did not forget the origins of their social engagement and transferred half of the funds raised by Scholarism to newer student movements, proving that most of the time, far for being a coalition of personal interest, student activism aims above all at taking its place in a wider and more inclusive spectrum of progressive social movements.