Student activism across the globe

24169841002_0322f895f2The rise of student activism over the past decade

As media reports across the world have attested, since the turn of the 21st century, we have witnessed a significant increase in the number of student protests across the globe. The most high-profile of these have been in Germany (from 2008-13), California (2009), the UK (2010), Chile (2010-13) and Canada (2010-13). Such activity raises important questions about assumptions have been made, by some social commentators and politicians, about the political apathy of the young and the de-politicisation of universities. While there is plenty of evidence that, despite a relative lack of engagement in electoral politics in many countries, students and other young people have remained politically active, the rise in student activism over the past decade or so may well be related to young people’s frustration with formal politics. Certainly, numerous studies have shown that young people do have an interest in formal politics, but believe that their interests are rarely served by mainstream political parties and that electoral systems are often outdated.

How similar are these movements?

In many ways, the student protests of the 21st century have much in common. A number have shared an opposition to the further rolling-out of market reforms in higher education – particularly in relation to the introduction of (or increase in) tuition fees, and the repositioning of higher education as a private good rather than a public one. Where students have become heavily involved in wider movements, these have also often arisen in response to the intensification of neo-liberal reform. However, students have also been prepared to take action for other causes, too. In Hong Kong, for example, students were key players in the pro-democracy movement of 2014 – boycotting classes and taking part in wider acts of civil disobedience to voice their concerns about the delays to democratic reform and call for an open selection process to decide on the candidates for the territory’s leader.

It has been argued that the student protests of the last decade can been seen as, to some extent, globalised – because of the ways in which they have influenced each other, and the importance of border-less technology in facilitating much of this action. This can be seen, for example, in the way in which the Twitter hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall stimulated protest across Africa and beyond, and the links between the student protestors in Hong Kong and their counterparts in Taiwan. New technologies were also important in the 2010 UK protests against fee increases, allowing students occupying university buildings to keep in touch with those engaged in similar activities at other institutions.

However, it is also clear that, despite the undoubted importance of new technologies in facilitating communication between student activists and across national borders, the nation-state continues to exert an important influence on the nature and focus of protest.  Student protests in Turkey, for example, as part of the Gezi Park resistance in 2013, were largely against what those involved perceived to be the conservative and paternalistic nature of their national government, rather than any concern about marketisation. Moreover, the nature of student activism across Africa has been influenced strongly by national-level factors such as the extent to which the state has created structures to allow students to become formally involved in policy-making.

What impact have these movements had?

The nation-state has also had a significant impact on the impact of student movements. Such protests can be seen to have brought about significant change in some countries – for example, Chile, Germany and Quebec in Canada. In Chile, this change has been far-reaching, and extended beyond higher education into other areas of social and political life. In other countries, such as the UK, student protests have been much less successful in bringing about change. In attempting to explain the differential impact of these protests, some researchers (such as Manja Klemenčič) have suggested that broad political norms are important. According to this perspective, student protests in the UK were unsuccessful largely because the government believed that students were not representative of wider public opinion, and that the population at large was broadly sympathetic to the introduction of further market-based reform.

Other scholars (such as Lorenzo Cini) have suggested that we need to look more closely at the specific structures of higher education systems. Research that has explored the different ways in which student protests have been treated in the UK and Italy, for example, has demonstrated how variation in governance can be significant. In Italy, university leaders are elected from among the professoriate and need to sustain good relationships with students in order to maintain their institutional position. Thus, they are likely to favour negotiation and compromise over more adversarial responses. In contrast, in the UK, university leaders are appointed through open competition. They are less reliant on the goodwill of students than their Italian counterparts and thus seek to minimise what they perceive to be the ‘reputational damage’ to their institution brought about by student protest through more repressive and confrontational tactics.

Nevertheless, our knowledge about why some student protests are more successful than others is still partial. Despite the frequency of student protests since the turn of the 21st century, and the significant media attention that has followed, further research is still very much needed in this area.


This blogpost originally appeared on the University World News website. It draws on ideas that are discussed more fully in Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, which will be published by Routledge and the Society for Research into Higher Education in the autumn.

Fathers sought for new research project

fathersAre you a father in a heterosexual dual-parent household in the UK who is the primary carer or who shares care equally with your partner for a child aged three or under?

We are carrying out research at the University of Surrey on the experiences of fathers who take on primary or equal caring responsibility for young children.

We are particularly interested in those whose caring responsibilities connect to changes to work (whether voluntary or enforced), such as periods of extended parental leave, adjusted hours, working flexibly or part-time, changing job or becoming unemployed. However, we also hope to speak to those taking on primary or equal care responsibilities alongside existing full-time work.

If you think you, your partner, or someone you know might come into this category and would be willing to take part in an interview with us, please contact us at to find out more. The identity of participants will be kept confidential.

Rachel Brooks and Paul Hodkinson, Department of Sociology, University of Surrey

Research fellow posts

Post-doctoral Research Fellows (2 positions – both are 5 year posts, starting on 1st August 2016)

Salary: up to £33,574 per year

I am pleased to advertise two research fellows to join my five-year ‘EuroStudents’ project, funded by the European Research Council (see here for further details). The project will explore the different ways in which higher education students are constructed across six European nations. Both posts will be based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey.

The first research fellow post will be responsible for the strand of work that focuses on institutional perspectives, i.e. the ways in which the higher education student is constructed through official university texts and staff understandings. S/he will be required to: liaise with relevant gatekeepers to secure access to research sites across six European countries; analyse websites and other public documents produced by universities (using both qualitative and quantitative methods); conduct and analyse interviews with members of university staff; and contribute to the analysis of data and dissemination of findings from the project as a whole.

The second post will be responsible for the strand of work that focuses on student perspectives. S/he will be required to: liaise with relevant gatekeepers to secure access to research sites across six European countries; conduct focus groups with students in three universities in each of the six countries; and contribute to the analysis of data and dissemination of findings from the project as a whole.

The successful candidates will have a doctorate in a relevant topic area, and experience of using relevant research methods. They will also have excellent organisation and communication skills and, ideally, knowledge of one or more of the languages covered by the project (in addition to English): Danish, German, Polish and Spanish. A willingness to travel abroad for a substantial proportion of the fieldwork is essential.

For informal inquiries contact me:

Closing date: 5pm, 6th June 2016

Interviews: 20th June 2016

Start date: 1st August 2016 (or as soon as possible thereafter)

Further details about the first post and the online application form can be found here, and details and the application form for the second post can be found here. (Please do apply for both posts, if you are interested in both.)