Student activism

Student activism

Student activism is work done by students to effect political, environmental, economic, or social change. It has often focused on making changes in schools, such as increasing student influence over curriculum or improving educational funding. In some settings, student groups have had a major role in broader political events [Fletcher, A. (2005) [ "Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People"] Olympia, WA: CommonAction.] , as reflected in the youth activism article.

National histories


In 1815 in Jena (Germany) the "Urburschenschaft" was founded. That was a Studentenverbindung that was concentrated on national and democratic ideas.In 1817, inspired by liberal and patriotic ideas of a united Germany, student organisations gathered for the Wartburg festival at Wartburg Castle, at Eisenach in Thuringia, on the occasion of which reactionary books were burnt.

In 1819 the student Karl Ludwig Sand murdered the writer August von Kotzebue, who had scoffed at liberal student organisations.

In May 1832 the Hambacher Fest was celebrated at Hambach Castle near Neustadt an der Weinstraße with about 30 000 participants, amongst them many students. Together with the Frankfurter Wachensturm in 1833 planned to free students held in prison at Frankfurt and Georg Büchner's revolutionary pamphlet "Der Hessische Landbote" that were events that led to the revolutions in the German states in 1848.


In Canada, several New Left student organizations emerged in the late 1950s and 1960s. There were several dominant New Left groups in Canada, the two main political organizations being the Student Union for Peace Action (SUPA) and the Company of Young Canadians (CYC). SUPA grew out of the pacifistic and moralistic Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND) in December, 1965, at a conference at the University of Saskatchewan, and expanded its scope of affairs to include grass-roots politics in disadvantaged communities and ‘consciousness raising’ to radicalize and raise awareness of the ‘generation gap’ experienced by Canadian youth. SUPA was a decentralized organization, rooted in local university campuses, and thus inherited the distinctly middle-class orientation of Canadian students. After SUPA disintegrated in late 1967, its members either moved to the CYC or became active leaders in the Canadian Union of Students (CUS), leading the CUS to assume the mantle of New Left student agitation. The organizations were marked by widespread intellectual debates. For example, with respect to the working class, the idea that the traditional ‘working class’ had been bought off and integrated into the system was widespread in these discussions, leaving the question of who now represented the most important actor in the struggle for a new and better socialist society. Indeed, SUPA fell apart over these debates over the role of the working class and the 'Old Left'. In 1968 Students for a Democratic University (SDU) was formed in McGill and Simon Fraser University. The SFU SDU was originally composed of former SUPA members and New Democratic Youth but also absorbed members from the campus Liberal Club and Young Socialists. SDU was prominent in the Administration Occupation of that year and the student strike in 1969. After the failure of the student strike SDU broke up. Some members joined the IWW and the Youth International Party. (Yippies) Other members helped form the Vancouver Liberation Front in 1970.

Since the 1970's Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG's) have been created as a result of Student's Union referendums across Canada. Canadian PIRG's are unique from their American counterparts in that the projects are student directed and run.

The Student Coalition Against War was formed to focuse on public education, non-violent activism, organizing, advocacy and above all, reform.

Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet Union states

During communist rule, students in Eastern Europe were the force behind several of the best-known instances of protest. The chain of events leading to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was started by peaceful student demonstrations in the streets of Budapest, later attracting workers and other Hungarians. In Czechoslovakia, one of the most known faces of the protests following the Soviet-led invasion that ended the Prague Spring was Jan Palach, a student who committed suicide by setting fire to himself on January 16, 1969. The act triggered a major protest against the occupation.

Student-dominated youth movements have also played a central role in the "color revolutions" seen in post-communist societies in recent years. The first example of this was the Serbian Otpor ("Resistance" in Serbian), formed in October 1998 as a response to repressive university and media laws that were introduced that year. In the presidential campaign in September 2000, the organisation engineered the "Gotov je" ("He's finished") campaign that galvanized Serbian discontent with Slobodan Milošević, ultimately resulting in his defeat.

Otpor has inspired other youth movements in Eastern Europe, such as Kmara in Georgia, that played an important role in the Rose Revolution, and Pora in Ukraine, the most important movement organising the demonstrations that led to the Orange Revolution. Like Otpor, these organisations have consequently practiced non-violent resistance and used ridiculing humor in opposing authoritarian leaders. Similar movements include KelKel in Kyrgyzstan, Zubr in Belarus and MJAFT! in Albania.

Opponents of the "color revolutions" have accused the Soros Foundations and/or the United States government of supporting and even planning the revolutions in order to serve western interests. Supporters of the revolutions have argued that these allegations are greatly exaggerated, and that the revolutions were positive events, morally justified, whether or not Western support had an influence on the events.


Australian Students have a long history of being active in political debates. This is particularly true in the newer universities that have been established in suburban areas. [cite web|url=|title=Book review: It Can't Happen Here|publisher=FlindersStudents|accessdate=2008-02-27] In recent years, the level to which students engage greatly in political expressions and processes has declined, as political apathy appears to be setting in amongst Australia's students. The number of, and attendance at, student protests and campus campaigns has, likewise, dwindled.


In France, student activists have been influential in shaping public debate. In May 1968 the University of Paris at Nanterre was closed due to problems between the students and the administration. In protest of the closure and the expulsion of Nanterre students, students of the Sorbonne in Paris began their own demonstration. The situation escalated into a nation-wide insurrection during which a variety of groups, including communists, anarchists, and right-wing libertarian activists, used the tension to advocate their own causes.

The events in Paris were followed by student protests throughout the world. The German student movement participated in major demonstrations against proposed emergency legislation. In many countries, the student protests caused authorities to respond with violence. In Spain, student demonstrations against Franco's dictatorship led to clashes with police. A student demonstration in Mexico City ended in a storm of bullets on the night of October 2, 1968, an event known as the Tlatelolco massacre. Even in Pakistan, students took to the streets to protest changes in education policy, and on November 7 a college student was shot dead as police opened fire on a demonstration.


In 1919 the May Fourth Movement when over 3000 students of Peking University and other schools gathered together in front of Tiananmen and held a demonstration was an essential step of the democratic revolution in China.The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 was carried by the student activists with other political groups who wanted to bring democracy to China. They ended in a brutal government crackdown which would later be called a massacre. These protests came from all of Beijing's 67 Universities.


In Indonesia, university student groups have repeatedly been the first groups to stage street demonstrations calling for governmental change at key points in the nation's history, and other organizations from across the political spectrum have sought to align themselves with student groups.

In 1928, the Youth Pledge (Sumpah Pemuda) helped to give voice to anti-colonial sentiments.

During the political turmoil of the 1960s, right-wing student groups staged demonstrations calling for then-President Sukarno to eliminate alleged Communists from his government, and later demanding that he resign. Sukarno did step down in 1967, and was replaced by Army general Suharto.

Student groups also played a key role in Suharto's 1998 fall by initiating large demonstrations that gave voice to widespread popular discontent with the president. High school and university students in Jakarta, Yogyakarta, Medan, and elsewhere were some of the first groups willing to speak out publicly against the military government. Student groups were a key part of the political scene during this period. For example, upon taking office after Suharto stepped down, B. J. Habibie made numerous mostly unsuccessful overtures to placate the student groups that had brought down his predecessor, meeting with student leaders and the families of students killed by security forces during demonstrations.

Further reading
* O'Rourke, Kevin. 2002. "Reformasi: the struggle for power in post-Soeharto Indonesia." Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-86508-754-8.
** "Details the role of student groups in Suharto's fall, including first-hand discussion of events in Jakarta in 1997 and 1998."

Documentary Movie
* "Student Movement in Indonesia", Jakarta Media Syndication, 1999.
* "Indonesian Student Revolt. Don’t Follow Leaders", Offstream [] , 2001.


In Iran, students have been at the forefront of protests both against the pre-1979 secular monarchy and, in recent years, against the theocratic islamic republic. Both religious and more moderate students played a major part in Ruhollah Khomeini's opposition network against the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. In January 1978 the army dispersed demonstrating students and religious leaders, killing several students and sparking a series of widespread protests that ultimately led to the Iranian Revolution the following year. On November 4, 1979, militant Iranian students calling themselves the Muslim Students Following the Line of the Imam seized the U.S. embassy in Tehran holding 52 embassy employees hostage for a 444 days (see Iran hostage crisis).

Recent years have seen several incidents when liberal students have clashed with the Iranian regime, most notably the Iranian student riots of July 1999. Several people were killed in a week of violent confrontations that started with a police raid on a university dormitory, a response to demonstrations by a group of students of Tehran University against the closure of a reformist newspaper. Akbar Mohammadi was given a death sentence, later reduced to 15 years in prison, for his role in the protests. In 2006, he died at Evin prison after a hunger strike protesting the refusal to allow him to seek medical treatment for injuries suffered as a result of torture.

At the end of 2002, students held mass demonstrations protesting the death sentence of reformist lecturer Hashem Aghajari for alleged blasphemy. In June 2003, several thousand students took to the streets of Tehran in anti-government protests sparked by government plans to privatise some universities. [cite web|url=|title= Iranians protest against clerics|publisher=BBC|date= 2003-06-11|accessdate=2007-09-13]

In the May 2005 Iranian presidential election, Iran's largest student organization, "The Office to Consolidate Unity", advocated a voting boycott. [cite web|url=|title= In Iran, Students Urge Citizens Not to Vote|publisher=The Washington Post|date=2004-11-19|accessdate=2007-09-13] After the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, student protests against the government has continued. In May 2006, up to 40 police officers were injured in clashes with demonstrating students in Tehran. [cite web|url=|title= Protests at Tehran universities|publisher=BBC|date=2006-05-24|accessdate=2007-09-13] At the same time, the Iranian regime has called for student action in line with its own political agenda. In 2006, President Ahmadinejad urged students to organize campaigns to demand that liberal and secular university teachers be removed. [cite web|url=|title= Iran's liberal lecturers targeted|publisher=BBC|date=2006-09-05|accessdate=2007-09-13]

United States

In the United States, student activism is often understood as a form of youth activism that is specifically oriented toward change in the American educational system. Student activism in the United States dates to the beginning of public education, if not before. The best early historical documentation comes from the 1930s. The American Youth Congress was a student-led organization in Washington, DC, which lobbied the US Congress against racial discrimination and for youth programs. It was heavily supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The 1960s saw student activists gaining increased political prominence. One highlight of this period was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) launched in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a student-led organization that focused on schools as a social agent that simultaneously oppresses and potentially uplifts society. SDS eventually spun off the Weather Underground. Another successful group was Ann Arbor Youth Liberation, which featured students calling for an end to state-led education. Also notable was the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which fought against racism and for integration of public schools across the US. These specific organizations closed in the mid-1970s.

The largest student strike in American history took place in May and June 1970, in response to the Kent State shootings and the American invasion of Cambodia.

In the early 1980s several formalized organizations brought neoliberal models of student activism to campuses across the nation, especially the Campus Outreach Opportunity League (C.O.O.L.). They claim large responsibility for identifying and championing the interest in service among higher education students.

American society saw an increase in student activism again in the 1990s with the ushering in of the neoliberal community service policies of Bill Clinton. The popular education reform movement has led to a resurgence of populist student activism against standardized testing and teaching [HoSang, D. (2003). [ "Youth and Community Organizing Today"] New York: Funders Collaborative on Youth Organizing.] , as well as more complex issues including military/industrial/prison complex and the influence of the military and corporations in education [Weiss, M. (2004) [ "Youth Rising"] .] There is also increased emphasis on ensuring that changes that are made are sustainable, by pushing for better education funding and policy or leadership changes that engage students as decision-makers in schools. Major contemporary campaigns include work for funding of public schools, against increased tuitions at colleges or the use of sweatshop labor in manufacturing school apparel (e.g. United students against sweatshops), for increased student voice throughout education planning, delivery, and policy-making (e.g. The Roosevelt Institution), and to raise national and local awareness of the humanitarian consequences of the Darfur Conflict. There is also increasing activism around the issue of global warming. Antiwar activism has also increased leading to the creation of the Campus Antiwar Network and the refounding of SDS in 2006.

United Kingdom

Student politics has existed in U.K since the 1880's with the formation of the student representative councils, precursors of union organisations designed to present students interests. These later evolved into unions, many of which became part of the National Union of Students formed in 1921. However, the NUS was designed to be specifically outside of "political and religious interests", reducing its importance as a centre for student activism. During the 1930's students began to become more politically involved with the formation of many socialist societies at universities, ranging from social democratic to marxist-leninist and trotskyite, even leading to Brian Simon, a communist, becoming head of the NUS.

However, it was not until the 1960's that student activism became important in British universities. Here, like many other countries, the Vietnam war and issues of Racism became a focus for many other local fustrations, such as fees and student representation. In 1962, the first student protest against the Vietnam War was held, with CND. However, it wasn't until the mid 1960's student activism began on a large scale. In 1965, a student protest of 250 students was held outside Edinburgh's American embassy and the beginning of protests against the Vietnam war in Grovesnor square. It also saw the first student teach-in at Oxford, where students debated alternative non-violent means of protest and protests at the London School of Economics against the government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia.

In 1966 the Radical Student Alliance and Vietnam Solidarity Campaign were formed, both of which became centres for the protest movement. However, the first student sit-in was held at the London School of Economics in 1967 by their Student's Union over the suspension of two students. Its success and a national student rally of 100,000 held in the same year is usually considered to mark the start of the movement. Up until the mid 1970's student activities were held including a protest of up to 80,000 strong in Grovesnor square, anti-racist protests and occupations in Newcastle, the breaking down of riot control gates and forced closure of the London School of Economics and Jack Straw becoming the head of the NUS for the RSA. However, two important things should be noted about the student activisim in the U.K. Firstly, most British students still had faith in the democratic system and the authorities knew not to be too heavy handed with the protestors, this meant most activities were well orgnaised and relatively peaceful. Secondly, many protests were over more local issues, such as student representation in college governance [Smith, P. H. J. (2007) [ "Student revolution in 1960s Britain: Myth or reality?"] ] , better accommodation, lower fees or even canteen prices. These can be seen as in distinct contrast to that of other countries.

Current activities

Modern student activist movements vary widely in subject, size, and success, with all kinds of students in all kinds of educational settings participating, including public and private school students; elementary, middle, senior, undergraduate, and graduate students; and all races, socio-economic backgrounds, and political perspectives [Fletcher, A. (2006) [ "Washington Youth Voice Handbook"] Olympia, WA: CommonAction.] . Popular issues include youth voice, student rights, school funding, drug policy reform, anti-racism in education, tuition increases (in colleges), supporting campus workers' struggles, and many other areas. For more information, see youth activism.


Numerous critics of "student" activism have identified the flaw of developing large categorizations based in the inherent oversimplification of singling out the role of individual recipients of educational processes as agents of change a larger society to which they belong; by isolating individuals as "students" without acknowledging their multiple other identities, activist movements tend to disenfranchise the very oppressions they sought to challenge and/or transform.

In addition, university students are considered to be members of a privileged sector of society. Student activists are often portrayed as spoiled rich kids who are just rebelling against authority. It is also often said that their activism reflects a liberal sense of guilt about their privileged social status, and that they are just making empty gestures aimed at clearing their own consciences, rather than truly attempting to reform the hierarchical society that granted them their favored position.

Another contemporary challenge of student activism comes from the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, who identified the crisis of the "pure activist" who operates without critical reflection:"The leaders [should not] treat the oppressed as mere activists to be denied the opportunity of reflection and allowed merely the illusion of acting, whereas in fact they would continue to be manipulated - and in this case by the presumed foes of the manipulation." [Freire, P. (1993) [ Chapter 2:] "Pedagogy of the Oppressed". New York: Continuum.] Thus Freire believed that by devoiding activism of learning, organizers may actually perpetuate the very problems they sought to address.

ee also

* Youth voice
*Youth activism
*Youth empowerment
*Youth participation
*Youth rights
* International Students Day
* LGBT Student Movement
* Town and gown
* Jeltoqsan


* 180/Movement for Democracy and Education
* Australian Student Environment Network
* Campus Antiwar Network
* Canadian Federation of Students
* The Freechild Project
* Idealist on Campus, a program of Action Without Borders
* National Youth Rights Association
* North American Students of Cooperation
* New York Public Interest Research Group
* People & Planet (UK's biggest student campaigning network)
* Secular Student Alliance
* Student World Assembly []
* Students for a Democratic Society
* Students for Justice in Palestine
* Student/Farmworker Alliance
* Students for Sensible Drug Policy
* United Students Against Sweatshops


Further reading

* [ Still the Earth Jumps Back: Student Uprisings Then and Now] Santa Barbara, CA, SBDisorientation Collective, 2006.
* [ Guide to Social Change Led By and With Young People] Olympia, WA: CommonAction, 2006.
* [ Student activists become more media-savvy] by David Linhardt, The New York Times (
* [ History of Student Activism] from Campus Compact.
* Brax, Ralph S. "The first student movement." Port Washington, NY : Kennikat Press, 1980.
* Carson, Claybourne. "In Struggle, SNCC and the Black Awakening of the 1960's." Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press., 1981
* Cohen, Robert. "When the old left was young." New York : Oxford University Press, 1993.
* Fletcher, Adam. (2005) [ "Meaningful Student Involvement Series."] HumanLinks Foundation.
* Kreider, Aaron ed. [ "The SEAC Organizing Guide."] Student Environmental Action Coalition, 2004.
* Loeb, Paul. "Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus." New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 1994.
* McGhan, Barry. [ "The Student Movement: Where do you stand?"] Time Magazine, 1971.
* Sale, Kirkpatrick. "SDS: Ten Years Towards a Revolution." New York, Random House, 1973.
* Students for a Democratic Society. [ "Port Huron Statement."] Author, 1962.
* Vellela, Tony. "New Voices: Student Activism in the 80s and 90s." Boston, MA: South End Press, 1988.
* Manabu Miyazaki; "Toppamono: Outlaw. Radical. Suspect. My Life in Japan's Underworld" (2005, Kotan Publishing, ISBN 0-9701716-2-5)

External links

* [ University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections - Vietnam Era Ephemera] This collection contains leaflets and newspapers that were distributed on the University of Washington campus during the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. They reflect the social environment and political activities of the youth movement in Seattle during that period.
* [ Student Activism Map] (United States)

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