This article is more than 4 years old

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

The current travails of the National Union of Students contrasts strongly with student protest movements in other countries. Yet there is also a common global wave of student activism transcending national boundaries.
This article is more than 4 years old

Rachel Brooks is Professor of Sociology at the University of Surrey. She is the editor of 'Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives'.

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 2012, 2014, and just a few weeks ago).

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. It is notable that the Twitter hashtag #RhodesMustFall, which originated in South Africa, was taken up with considerable energy by students in the UK. It has become common for commentators to argue that new technologies have ushered in new forms of political activity which rarely respect national borders.

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 can be seen as part of the same network.

Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives provides evidence that there are indeed strong commonalities in student activism across the globe. 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. Market-driven reform of higher education in very different national contexts (such as Chile, Denmark and Italy) has frequently been a spur to common student action across the globe.

Nevertheless, the influence of the nation-state endures, raising important questions about claims that student protest has now become ‘globalised’. Students have not all been motivated by a common opposition to market-based reform, but rather in a broader defence of political liberalism. The Gezi Resistance in Turkey was instead motivated by opposition to the conservative and paternalistic orientation of the Turkish government. Student protests in Hong Kong focussed on processes of ‘mainlandization’ by the Chinese government.

Perhaps one of the most interesting cross-national differences is the variation in how students have organised in different contexts. The contrast between Denmark and the UK is particularly revealing. Danish students – opposed to marketisation of public services – have participated in politics in three contrasting ways. The first group of protestors, including the Danish National Union of Students, has focussed on representation and pursuing parliamentary routes, believing this to be the most effective means of securing change. A second group has contested this assumption and chosen to demonstrate in the streets and through other forms of direct action. The third group has been committed to ‘prefigurative politics’: enacting and modelling what they believed to be more emancipatory behaviours. Importantly, however, Danish students have appeared to accept these different kinds of political performance, and the politically pragmatic stance of the Danish National Union of Students has not become a source of contention to those more inclined towards radical activism.

Student politics has not been similarly amiable in the UK. The 2010 protests against fee increases in England highlighted the divided nature of British 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 NUS 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 and NUS officials, with leftist groups coming to define themselves largely in opposition to the pragmatic stance adopted by the leadership of NUS.

National differences are also evident in responses to student protest. There is, for instance, considerable contrast between the conciliatory responses of Italian university leaders and the arguably more repressive position adopted by their UK counterparts. This is largely due to the contrasting forms of governance between Italian and British universities: 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. UK leaders are appointed rather than elected and are less reliant on the goodwill of students and their political representatives. UK vice chancellors are also inclined to minimise ‘reputational damage’ from drawn-out student protests, and so seek to end protest quickly.

On the whole, claims of a ‘globalised’ form of student protest are premature; national differences remain significant. Nevertheless, it is clear that student politics and protests across the globe continue to remain vibrant. Although the foci of protest, methods employed, and societal responses may differ, students at the start of the 21st century have again become significant political actors.

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