The global(ised) rise of student politics and protest?

The first decade and a half of the 21st century have witnessed protests by students across the globe. They have occurred in places as diverse as Germany (2009-2013), California (2009), Chile (2010-13) and Canada (2012), as well as those that happened in London (most famously in 2010, but also again, in 2016). Social commentators have speculated whether this is part of a worldwide trend, in which students are taking on the activist identity of the 1960s. Some have also asked whether student protest has now become globalised – pointing to the rise of student movements in a relatively short and concentrated period of time, and also the way in which social media has appeared to galvanise students across disparate geographical locations. Indeed, it is notable that the Twitter hashtag #RhodesMustFall, which originated in South Africa, was taken up with considerable energy by students in the UK. Moreover, some researchers have argued that new technologies have ushered in new forms of political activity, which rarely respect national borders.

However, until recently, we have had relatively little empirical evidence upon which to assess claims that student politics and protest have become ‘globalised’, and to explore the extent to which student activism, across the globe, has taken up similar forms and can be seen as part of the same network. Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, published recently, aims to intervene directly into this debate, by bringing together contemporary research from diverse geographical contexts.

It provides evidence of some strong commonalities across the globe. A number of authors show, for example, that student protest in one nation-state has been directly influenced by protest in another – the ‘umbrella movement’ in Hong Kong had important links to the ‘sunflower movement’ in neighbouring Taiwan, for example. Similarly, across many European nations there is a strong (student) commitment to protecting a ‘free’ higher education (i.e. one funded by the state rather than through fees) – which has galvanised protest in Germany and elsewhere. Furthermore, numerous contributions to the book, drawing on very different national contexts (such as Chile, Denmark and Italy), discuss the prevalence of market-driven reform and how this has frequently been a spur to action on the part of students. The chapters also demonstrate how students are now increasingly aware of what is happening beyond their own national borders, making use of new technologies to network with others and publicise their concerns.

Nevertheless, the book also demonstrates that the influence of the nation-state endures, raising important questions about claims that student protest has now become ‘globalised’. Students have not, for example, all been motivated by a common opposition to market-based reform. Those involved in the Gezi Resistance in Turkey, for example, were motivated instead by their opposition to what they perceived to be the conservative and paternalistic orientation of their national government. Moreover, student protests in Hong Kong focussed on processes of ‘mainlandization’ by the Chinese government (i.e. the subtle convergence taking place between Hong Kong and mainland China).

Perhaps one of the most interesting cross-national differences highlighted by the book is the variation in the way in which students have organised in different contexts. Here, the comparison between Denmark and the UK is particularly revealing. In Denmark, students – opposed to the increasing marketization of public services – have performed politics in three contrasting ways. The first group of protestors, which included the Danish National Union of Students, focussed primarily on representation and pursuing parliamentary routes, believing this to be the most effective means of securing change. A second group contested this assumption and chose to mobilise instead, demonstrating in the streets and taking other forms of direct action. The third group were committed to ‘prefigurative politics’, i.e. enacting what they believed to be a new form of political practice. Importantly, however, Danish students appeared to accept these different kinds of political performance, and the politically pragmatic stance of the Danish National Union of Students did not become a source of contention. As those familiar with the UK context may perhaps be aware, student politics has not operated in the same way here. Indeed, two of the chapters of Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives that focus specifically on the 2010 protests against fee increases in England highlight the divided nature of student activism. The UK’s National Union of Students was split between those advocating a radical stance, opposing any form of student contribution to the cost of tuition fees, and those who believed that conceding the principle of contribution was necessary if the organisation was to have any real influence among policymakers. Fundamental differences about ‘the best way to be a political actor’ underpinned this divide. A bitter conflict over tactics developed among activists, with leftist groups coming to define themselves largely in opposition to the pragmatic stance adopted by the leadership of the National Union of Students.

National differences are also evident in responses to student protest. Contrasts are draw in the book between the conciliatory responses of Italian university leaders and the more repressive position adopted by their UK counterparts. The book explains these differences by pointing to the wider higher education sector in both countries and, in particular, forms of governance. Italian leaders tend to be elected from among their colleagues, and thus need to sustain good relationships with students in order to maintain their institutional authority. In contrast, UK leaders are appointed rather than elected and, as a result, are less reliant on the goodwill of students; they are also motivated to minimise potential ‘reputational damage’ brought about by drawn-out student protest, and so seek to end protest quickly.

This evidence, provided by detailed empirical research across the world, suggests that claims of a ‘globalised’ form of student protest are premature; national differences remain significant. Nevertheless, the various chapters of Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives also point to the vibrancy of political activity by students in many different contexts: although the foci of protest, methods employed and societal responses may differ, students have again, at the start of the 21st century, assumed the role of significant political actors.

This blog first appeared on the WonkHE website on 29th November 2016.

Student leadership & politics seminar

On Tuesday, we’re running a seminar on Student Leadership and Politics at the University of Surrey. Lorenzo Cini, from the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa, and Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela from the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile, will each be giving a paper on their recent research on student politics (see abstracts below), and Alex MacKenzie-Smith, the current president of the University of Surrey’s Students’ Union, will be acting as a discussant.

The seminar will run from 3-4pm in 32MS01 – and all are welcome to attend. Do come along if you’re interested!

Student Activism in Contemporary Italian Universities


My presentation sheds light on and assesses the strategies that the Italian student activists adopted in order to influence the revision process of the governance structure of their universities in 2011. Which kind of strategy has enabled these activists to influence successfully this process? My argument is that the choice to build a coalition with other actors and/or to promote “institutional activists” (Santoro and McGuire 1997) within the governing boards and committees facilitates the adoption of student demands and, therefore, their influence. The “power of the streets” exerted by the “outsiders,” combined with the institutional power of the “insiders,” produces a significant amplifying effect in the governing bodies. University leaders fear this kind of alliance, as they perceive that insiders with a strong tie with other actors are the expression of a collective voice that is difficult to neutralize. These insiders act on the behalf of a collective group, which supports them politically and physically in the confrontation with the university management. On the other hand, the outsiders are also aware that their collective strength is more likely to be translated into institutional power and action from their allies and/or representatives.

Biographical note:

Lorenzo Cini is a current research fellow at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa. He has a PhD degree in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute of Florence, conducting his research on the contentious politics of higher education in Italy and England. More notably, he investigated the array of university mobilizations emerged in England and Italy in opposition to the recent neoliberal reforms on higher education. On this topic, he has published several articles and chapter contributions in edited volumes and journals. Over the past five years, he has also carried out research in the field of political philosophy and theory by working on the concepts of democracy, justice and equality. On these topics, he recently published the book, Civil Society and Radical Democracy (2012), and, in collaboration with Professor Brunella Casalini, the volume of political philosophy on Justice, Equality, and Difference. A Guide to the Reading of Contemporary Political Philosophy (2012).

The Chilean university student movement as an expression of student leadership: challenges for the future


In Chile, during the 70s and the 80s, the Pinochet regime adopted a neoliberal approach that undermined the role of state in all sort of public policies, including education (Taylor, 2002). Particularly, in higher education this kind of approach promoted the privatization of the system and students became customers having to pay a high cost for their education, usually by getting into debt. Although the democratic system returned in the 90s, public policies implemented by subsequent governments (most of them left-oriented) reinforced this model. It was not until 2011 when the first signs of unrest appeared among citizens and university students took on a decisive leadership role to challenge the state of things. In doing so, students protested in the streets for several years and used mass media and technologies to promote their ‘quality public education for everybody’ banner. They have also been able to obtain several parliamentary seats for former student leaders, and prompt a reform agenda in higher education that is currently in the parliament. As a result, the student movement has become an agentic field in its own right (Guzmán-Valenzuela, 2017). In this presentation, I analyse the Chilean student movement identifying forms of both individual and collective leadership.

Biographical note:

Dr. Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Research in Education at the University of Chile. She conducts research in the field of higher education with a particular interest in the impact of neoliberal regimes on the contemporary university.  She has won national research grants and collaborates with different research international networks in higher education. She has published in leading journals and books on topics such as academic identity, the public role of universities and teaching practices. She also works in the theorization of the use of qualitative methodologies in education.

Student Politics and Protest – now published

spp-bookStudent Politics and Protest: International Perspectives has now been published as part of the Routledge/Society for Research into Higher Education series on Research into Higher Education. It provides the first book-length analysis of student politics within contemporary higher education, comprising contributions from a wide variety of different countries and addressing questions such as:

What roles do students’ unions play in politics today?
How successful are students in bringing about change?
In what ways are students engaged in politics and protest in contemporary society?
How does such engagement differ by national context?

Its thirteen chapters explore a number of common themes, including: the focus and nature of student politics and protest; whether students are engaging in fundamentally new forms of political activity; the characteristics of politically engaged students; the extent to which such activity can be considered to be ‘globalised’; and societal responses to political activity on the part of students.

We will be running several events to open up discussion about some of the topics covered in the book, including a seminar at the University of Surrey on 29th November, and a symposium (and formal launch of the book) at the SRHE annual conference  from 7-9th December.

The changing nature of students’ unions

I will be giving a talk at the European Conference on Educational Research this week about the role of students’ unions within higher education. Below, I outline some of the key points I’ll be making.

What role do students’ unions play in today’s HE system?

Students’ unions have a long history in the UK, with the first having been established at St Andrew’s University in Scotland in 1864. Historically, they have tended to carry out a range of functions for their members including: organising social activities; providing support on a range of academic and welfare issues; representing students both individually and collectively; and campaigning on local and national issues – although the relative importance of these functions has differed over time.

Despite radical changes to the UK higher education sector over recent years, the role of the students’ union, within this shifting landscape has remained largely unexplored. With the aim of starting to redress this gap, over the past couple of years, Kate Byford, Katherine Sela and I have conducted a UK-wide survey of students’ union officers and two focus groups at each of ten case-study higher education institutions – one with students’ union leaders and the other with senior managers of the institution. The data we have generated, through these methods, suggest strongly that the role of students’ unions has changed significantly over the last decade.

Increasing importance of the representative function

Firstly, we found that a large majority of our respondents believed that the ‘representative’ function (i.e. representing the views and concerns of all sections of the student body) of students’ unions had become increasingly important and that, in many cases, this has been associated with a decline in the importance of other functions such as more ‘activist’ pursuits (e.g. campaigning on national and local issues) and the provision of services to students (through, for example, advice and guidance sessions and/or as part of commercial activities). Although this shift was welcomed by many of those who took part in our research, a significant minority of our respondents did raise some concerns about this new focus. For example, one of the focus groups comprised of senior managers commented: ‘I think what we’re probably articulating is a pattern where the student union influence [on the university] ….  has just eroded and eroded and eroded and is being distilled down to this kind of pivotal role around representation and so on and that just leads to all the questions around, you know, what’s it there for, what’s it doing and that kind of thing and so on.’

Increasing importance of non-elected officers

Secondly, alongside a shift towards prioritising representation, many participants described how permanent staff within the students’ union had come to take on more power, sometimes at the expense of those who had been elected. The senior managers at one of our case study institutions were typical of many in noting that there had been a ‘shift of balance of our contacts’ away from elected officers and towards those in long-term roles. They described how there were now fewer sabbatical officer roles, and financial responsibility had been transferred from elected officers to the senior manager of the students’ union. For a large majority of respondents, such changes were seen in broadly positive terms, as providing greater continuity from year to year, and better support structures for those in elected positions (who typically occupy their role for one year only), particularly at the start of their term of office. Not all respondents were, however, entirely comfortable with this change in roles, with some believing that it sometimes made it harder for those in elected roles to advance their own agenda. Indeed, one of our respondents commented: ‘I know that some [elected] officers have found it difficult challenging the [students’ union] senior leadership team, who have naturally all come from leadership roles and are leaders themselves, to say actually, “This is the representational voice of students….and this is the direction we’d like to go with please”.’

Relationships with senior management

Finally, many of those who took part in the research believed that the relationship between students’ union officers and senior institutional managers had changed over time, and that there was now a new willingness on both sides to engage in constructive ways. This change was typically explained by pointing to developments in the external environment, particularly the increase in tuition fees and the insertion of the question about the performance of students’ unions into the annual National Student Survey. Students’ union officers at one of our case study institutions, for example, claimed that their senior managers ‘know they have to respond to the customers’, while senior managers at another university stated explicitly that the students’ union had become increasingly important because of the emphasis that had come to be placed on the ‘student voice’ ‘for a variety of reasons, not least the NSS and its influence on league tables’. Nevertheless, while a majority of respondents from both students’ unions and senior management described closer, more co-operative and less adversarial relationships, this was rarely thought to have been associated with any significant shift of power away from institutional leaders.

What is the significance of these changes?

The strong evidence of an increased focus on the representative role of students’ unions, and the importance attributed to this by many respondents provides some support for the arguments made by scholars that the student voice has become increasingly ‘domesticated’. By focussing on representation, students’ union officers inevitably foreground issues that affect the day-to-day lives of students rather than broader political or social concerns that may be more aligned with an ‘activist’ agenda. Moreover, the increasing convergence between the values and priorities of students’ unions and senior management (as a result of similar pressures coming to bear on both parties), suggests that fewer spaces are now available within higher education institutions from which to offer a radical challenge to either local or national policy.

While students’ unions may provide an important space within higher education institutions for like-minded people to get together and pursue collaborative projects, our research has provided little evidence to support the argument that has been made by Crossley and Ibrahim that they play a significant role in facilitating political engagement, or inculcating a more ‘activist’ orientation. Our data suggest that the space of the students’ union was important for bringing students together, but typically for the purpose of representing other students and/or delivering services and events in the wider institution. In line with Sabri’s argument, we suggest that student ‘voice’ was articulated primarily in relation to concerns about ‘the student experience’ rather than any more political agendas.

The increasingly powerful role, within students’ unions, of permanent members of staff also raises questions about Crossley and Ibrahim’s thesis, as elected officers (in some institutions) come to have less contact with senior managers, and strategic priorities are increasingly shaped by those without a democratic mandate.  Nevertheless, in relating our data to broader themes about political engagement, it is important to emphasise that we are not claiming that the voice of all students has been ‘domesticated’. Indeed, evidence of recent student occupations in the UK suggests that there remain some spaces within higher education – even if not within the day-to-day practices of students’ unions – within which more radical critiques can be articulated and students can engage politically.

Many of our students’ union respondents believed they did have a significant influence on the senior management within their institution, and certainly felt that they were listened to by senior staff more than their counterparts had been in the past. Nevertheless, they were also clear about the limits to their influence, with almost all those who took part in the focus groups believing that, ultimately, power lay with senior managers. The evidence discussed above also suggests that the power of those holding elected positions was being eroded within students’ unions by the increasing importance of permanent members of staff.  Furthermore, the focus on ‘local’ issues, as a consequence of the foregrounding of the representative role with the remit of both the students’ union as a whole and that of individual officers, suggests that the arena within which power and influence can be exerted is limited. We thus conclude by suggesting that, here, there are broad parallels with the critiques that have been made in other areas – for example, in relation to school councils and youth parliaments – that initiatives to give ‘voice’ often fail to facilitate genuine political expression or enable real power to be exercised.


This blogpost is based on this article, which was published in the Journal of Education Policy. A similar blogpost has also been published on the Department of Sociology, University of Surrey’s blog.


Symposium on Student Politics and Protest

Despite allegations of political disengagement and apathy on the part of the young, the last ten years have witnessed a considerable degree of political activity by young people – much of it led by students (for example, protests against tuition fees, or as part of the Occupy movement) and/or directed at changes to the higher education system. Such activity has been evident across the globe.

We will be running a symposium at the SRHE annual conference in December to bring together contributions from various different national contexts to explore such trends in a rigorous manner. It will address a number of important themes, including: the focus and nature of student politics and protest; the contribution of students’ unions and student movements; whether students are engaging in fundamentally new forms of political activity; the characteristics of politically-engaged students; the extent to which such activity can be considered to be ‘globalised’; and societal responses to political activity on the part of students.

It will also be a means of publicising the book, Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives, which will be published in the Routledge and SRHE series later in the year. All those presenting papers as part of the symposium (Alex Hensby, Lorenzo Cini, Gritt Nielsen, Bruce Macfarlane and Carolina Guzmán-Valenzuela) have also written one of the chapters in the forthcoming book.


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.