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 included protests in Germany (2008-13), California (2009), the United Kingdom (2010), Chile (2010-13) and Canada (2010-13).
Such activity raises important questions about the assumptions that 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, and 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but believe that their interests are rarely served by mainstream political parties and that electoral systems are often outdated.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.
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 delays to democratic reform and to 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 be seen as, to some extent, globalised – because of the ways in which they have influenced each other, and the importance of borderless technology in facilitating much of this action.
This can be seen, for example, in the way in which the Twitter hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall in South Africa stimulated protest across Africa and beyond and the links between 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 effect 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 Klemencic) 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.
Rachel Brooks is professor of sociology and head of the department of sociology at the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom. She has written widely on the sociology of higher education and her recent research has focussed on the changing role of student unions. Her edited book, Student Politics and Protest: International perspectives, will be published by Routledge in the autumn.
Receive UWN's free weekly e-newsletters