Student activism and its role in achieving the SDGs

Student activism has an important role to play in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Agenda 2063 – including the Continental Education Strategy for Africa 2016-25 – as articulated by the United Nations and the African Union respectively.

Since higher education institutions are leaders in education, research and innovation, they also have an important role in advancing sustainable development through well-articulated student voices as a lever for social and economic change.

Throughout the world, student activism has been a feature of higher education. On the African continent, early student activism focused on national politics to bring about independence in colonised countries. Post-independence, African students engaged in a second liberation struggle for social justice and democracy, and against apartheid in South Africa. In Asia, since the Second World War, students have organised protest movements that toppled authoritarian regimes in some countries and threatened governments in others.

In Latin America, students organised and participated in the 1918 Cordoba Reform protest movement that swept across all of Latin America to bring about changes in university governance. Subsequently, student inclusion in university governance in African, Asian and Latin American countries was institutionalised in public universities.

Nevertheless, student activism continues to be prevalent as student activists continue to organise to defend and extend their gains.

In South America, the Cordoba protest movement in 1918, which began at the University of Córdoba, Argentina, was the first major student-related uprising in the continent and it brought about changes in university governance. In Western countries, the 1960s was a decade of turbulent student activism as students participated in United States civil rights movements, struggled against the Vietnam War and called for student representation in university decision-making processes.

In European countries student activism has been widespread as French students waged a struggle against the De Gaulle regime, while in West Germany students organised an extra-parliamentary opposition to the regime. The major drivers of student activism in European countries in the 1960s were issues beyond campus politics.

Student activism and SDGs

In 2015, the United Nations Assembly adopted 17 SDGs for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development 2015. The SDGs provide for the development of an action plan over the next decade to end poverty and put the world on the path to sustainability. The SDGs encapsulate three approaches to human well-being, namely, economic development, environmental sustainability and social inclusion.

The UN has mapped the road to sustainable development by providing the framework, targets and indicators. Students and youth in general have a role in utilising their creative ideas, technologies and inter-connectedness to bring innovative ideas to the fore to achieve the SDGs.

Recently, African students participated in the Africa Students' and Youth Summit 2018 (ASYS) that attracted thousands of students and youth to Kigali, Rwanda in 2018 to contribute towards the SDGs and African Union Agenda 2063.

Also, African students participated in a global protest under the banner of #ClimateAction in an international effort to spur world leaders into action on climate change. Students all over the world took to the streets during a strike as part of a global day of student protests. They demanded action on climate change, and criticised their governments for not taking global warming seriously.

Social media

Social media has been used to help mobilise students across the globe in what Manuel Castells would conceptualise as an internet-age networked movement. It aided the contribution of student movements to increasing access to quality higher education, providing decent work and economic growth, promoting gender equality, and reducing inequalities in countries.

The South African students’ #FeesMustFall movement was yet further testimony to the role of student activism in social transformation and in meeting the SDGs and Agenda 2063.

There are many ways in which students and the youth can fully and productively participate in discussions that focus on achieving SDGs by focusing on matters of national and global interest. No one should be left behind along the way. Governments should involve youth from diverse backgrounds in national-level planning, implementation, and monitoring.

It is noted from the literature that students and youth can be regarded as critical thinkers, innovators and effective communicators. Moreover, they can be agents of change. Student activism can pressure governments to support the meaningful inclusion of students and youth in decision-making and implementation of the post-2015 agenda.

Pressure group

Though the United Nations adopted 17 SDGs that set the world’s development agenda until 2030, these goals are not legally binding and each country can decide how to implement the ambitious goals based on their own national contexts. Furthermore, the review of a country’s progress toward the goals is strictly voluntary. In this context, well-informed and organised student activism can play an important role in pressurising, if not forcing, political leaders and governments to pursue these goals seriously.

The SDGs can be achieved if governments recognise the value of collaborating and teaming up with students and youth as partners. Countries that develop clear pathways for meaningful involvement of students from the onset can be better positioned to achieve the SDGs and related targets.

This assertion concurs with utterances by the former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon who posited that no one can better understand the challenges at stake or the best way to respond to those challenges than youth. Accordingly, he made a call for students and youth to speak out, on one hand, and advised leaders and government to listen, on the other.

In conclusion, student activists can serve as pressure groups for meeting the SDGs. Through participation in dialogues or protest movements, and by using social media tools to galvanise support, students can demand implementation of sustainable development plans.

Higher education institutions have a significant role to play in advancing the SDGs through well-articulated student voices as a lever of social and economic movements. This can include embracing the innovative ideas of students, promoting technological tools at their disposal, supporting and nurturing student activism by imparting to and inculcating in students certain skills and values as part of capacity development.

The author thanks Professor Damtew Teferra for his comments on the draft.

Mthoko Ntuli is a doctoral candidate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Durham, England, and is currently a student development practitioner at Mangosuthu University of Technology in Umlazi, Durban. He can be reached at