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.

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