Puneet Varma (Editor)

Student activism

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Student activism

Student activism is work by students to cause political, environmental, economic, or social change. Although often focused on schools, curriculum, and educational funding, student groups have influenced greater political events.


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. Some student protests focus on the internal affairs of a specific institution; others focus on broader issues such as a war or dictatorship. Likewise, some student protests focus on an institution's impact on the world, such as a disinvestment campaign, while others may focus on a regional or national policy's impact on the institution, such as a campaign against government education policy. Although student activism is commonly associated with left-wing politics, right-wing student movements are not uncommon; for example, large student movements fought on both sides of the apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Student activism at the university level is nearly as old as the university itself. Students in Paris and Bologna staged collective actions as early as the 13th century, chiefly over town and gown issues. Student protests over broader political issues also have a long pedigree. In Joseon Dynasty Korea, 150 Sungkyunkwan students staged an unprecedented remonstration against the king in 1519 over the Kimyo purge.


In Argentina, as elsewhere in Latin America, the tradition of student activism dates back to at least the 19th century, but it was not until after 1900 that it became a major political force. in 1918 student activism triggered a general modernization of the universities especially tending towards democratization, called the University Revolution (Spanish: revolución universitaria). The events started in Córdoba and were accompanied by similar uprisings across Latin America.


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.

For much of the 20th century, the major campus organizing group across Australia was the Australian Union of Students, which was founded in 1937 as the Union of Australian University Students. The AUS folded in 1984. It was replaced by the National Union of Students in 1987.


Student politics of Bangladesh is reactive, confrontational and violent. Student organizations act as the armament of the political parties they are part of. So every now and then there are affrays and commotions. Over the years, political clashes and factional feuds in the educational institutes killed many, seriously hampering academic atmosphere. To check those hitches, universities have no options but go to lengthy and unexpected closures. So classes are not completed on time and there are session jams.

The student wings of ruling parties dominate the campuses and residential halls through crime and violence to enjoy various unauthorized facilities. They control the residential halls to manage seats in favor of their party members and loyal pupils. They eat and buy for free from the restaurants and shops nearby. They extort and grab tenders to earn illicit money. They take money from the freshmen candidates and put pressures on teachers to get an acceptance for them. They take money from the job seekers and put pressures on university administrations to appoint them.


In Canada, New Left student organizations from the late 1950s and 1960s became mainly two: SUPA (Student Union for Peace Action) and CYC (Company of Young Canadians). SUPA grew out of the CUCND (Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) in December 1964, at a University of Saskatchewan conference. While CUCND had focused on protest marches, SUPA sought to change Canadian society as a whole. The scope expanded to 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. SUPA however disintegrated in late 1967 over debates concerning the role of working class and 'Old Left'. Members moved to the CYC or became active leaders in CUS (Canadian Union of Students), leading the CUS to assume the mantle of New Left student agitation.

In 1968, SDU (Students for a Democratic University) was formed at McGill and Simon Fraser Universities. SFU SDU, originally former SUPA members and New Democratic Youth, absorbed members from the campus Liberal Club and Young Socialists. SDU was prominent in an Administration occupation in 1968, and a student strike in 1969. After the failure of the student strike, SDU broke up. Some members joined the IWW and Yippies (Youth International Party). Other members helped form the Vancouver Liberation Front in 1970. The FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front) was considered a terrorist organization, causing the use of the War Measures Act after 95 bombings in the October Crisis. This was the only peacetime use of the War Measures Act.

Anti-Bullying Day (a.k.a. Pink Shirt Day) was created by high school students David Shepherd, and Travis Price of Berwick, Nova Scotia, and is now celebrated annually across Canada.

In 2012, the Quebec Student Movement arose due to an increase of tuition of 75%; that took students out of class and into the streets because that increase did not allow students to comfortably extend their education, because of fear of debt or not having money at all. Following elections that year, premier Jean Charest promised to repeal anti-assembly laws and cancel the tuition hike.

Since the 1970s, PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) have been created as a result of Student Union referendums across Canada in individual provinces. Like their American counterparts, Canadian PIRGs are student directed, run, and funded. Most operate on a consensus decision making model. Despite efforts at collaboration, Canadian PIRGs are independent of each other.


From 2011 to 2013, Chile was rocked by a series of student-led nationwide protests across Chile, demanding a new framework for education in the country, including more direct state participation in secondary education and an end to the existence of profit in higher education. Currently in Chile, only 45% of high school students study in traditional public schools and most universities are also private. No new public universities have been built since the end of the Chilean transition to democracy in 1990, even though the number of university students has swelled. Beyond the specific demands regarding education, the protests reflected a "deep discontent" among some parts of society with Chile's high level of inequality. Protests have included massive non-violent marches, but also a considerable amount of violence on the part of a side of protestors as well as riot police.

The first clear government response to the protests was a proposal for a new education fund and a cabinet shuffle which replaced Minister of Education Joaquín Lavín and was seen as not fundamentally addressing student movement concerns. Other government proposals were also rejected.


Since the defeat of the Qing Dynasty during the First (1839–1842) and Second Opium Wars (1856–1860), student activism has played a significant role in the modern Chinese history. Fueled mostly by Chinese nationalism, Chinese student activism strongly believes that young people are responsible for China's future. This strong nationalistic belief has been able to manifest in several forms such as Democracy, anti-Americanism and Communism.

One of the most important acts of student activism in Chinese history is the 1919 May Fourth Movement that saw over 3,000 students of Peking University and other schools gathered together in front of Tiananmen and holding a demonstration. It is regarded as an essential step of the democratic revolution in China, and it had also give birth to Chinese Communism. Anti-Americanism movements led by the students during the Chinese Civil War were also instrumental in discrediting the KMT government and bring the Communist victory in China. In 1989, the democracy movement led by the students at the Tiananmen Square protests ended in a brutal government crackdown which would later be called a massacre.

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, which played an important role in the Rose Revolution, and Pora in Ukraine, which was key in 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.


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 nationwide insurrection.

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 two college students died after police opened fire on a demonstration. The global reverberations from the French uprising of 1968 continued into 1969 and even into the 1970s.


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 the 1960s, the worldwide upswing in student and youth radicalism manifested itself through the German student movement and organisations such as the German Socialist Student Union. The movement in Germany shared many concerns of similar groups elsewhere, such as the democratisation of society and opposing the Vietnam War, but also stressed more nationally specific issues such as coming to terms with the legacy of the Nazi regime and opposing the German Emergency Acts.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong Student activist group Scholarism began an occupation of the Hong Kong government headquarters on 30 August 2012. The goal of the protest was, expressly, to force the government to retract its plans to introduce Moral and National Education as a compulsory subject. On 1 September, an open concert was held as part of the protest, with an attendance of 40,000. At last, the government de facto striked down the Moral and National Education.

Student organizations made important roles during the Umbrella Movement. Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPCSC) made decisions on the Hong Kong political reform on 31 August 2014, which the Nominating Committee would tightly control the nomination of the Chief Executive candidate, candidates outside the Pro-Beijing camp would not have opportunities to be nominated. The Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism led a strike against the NPCSC's decision beginning on 22 September 2014, and started protesting outside the government headquarters on 26 September 2014. On 28 September, the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement announced that the beginning of their civil disobedience campaign. Students and other members of the public demonstrated outside government headquarters, and some began to occupy several major city intersections.


In 16 January 2017 a large group of students (nearly more than 20 lakhs) protested in state of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry for the ban on Jallikattu. The first protest took place in Alanganallur madurai district where few were involved and have been arrested in pay for that a mass huge protest started at Marina beach Chennai, after that Puducherry, Trichy, Salem, Coimbatore, Erode, Tirunelveli, dharmapuri,krishnagiri,vellore,and almost all district of Tamil Nadu participated in the protest. The ban was made by Supreme court of India in 2014 when PETA filed a petition against Jallikattu as a cruelty to animals.

On 20 Jan temporary ordinance has been passed on lifting the ban on Jallikattu.

It was the only Students protest in India done very peacefully. Food, water, mobile restrooms were all arranged by the students and were provided free to more than 20 lakhs student. Most of the Students stayed in the protest place. Many families were also joined the protest. No harassment of women has been filed during the protest as the women also stayed in the protest.Everyone was wondering how such a remarkable protest take place in Tamil Nadu by tamilians. No political parties were allowed in the protest. And from that many tamilians across the various countries showed their support. Not only tamilians everyone everybody started supporting this in spite of religion their language.


Indonesia has hosted "some of the most important acts of student resistance in the world's history". 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 in the aftermath of the May 1998 riots. 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. 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. When that failed, he sent a combined force of police and gangsters to evict protesters occupying a government building by force. The ensuing carnage left two students dead and 181 injured.


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 government, 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.

In the May 2005 Iranian presidential election, Iran's largest student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, advocated a voting boycott. 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. At the same time, the Iranian government 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.

In 2009, after the disputed presidential election, a series of student protests broke out, which became known as the Iranian Green Movement. The violent measures used by the Iranian government to suppress these protests have been the subject of widespread international condemnation.


In Israel the students were amongst the leading figures in the 2011 Israeli social justice protests that grew out of the Cottage cheese boycott.


Japanese student movement began during the Taishō Democracy, and grew in activity after World War II. They were mostly carried out by activist students. One such event was the Anpo opposition movement, which occurred in 1960, in opposition to the Anpo treaty. In the subsequent student uprising in 1968, leftist activists barricaded themselves in universities, resulting in armed conflict with the Japanese police force. Some wider causes were supported including opposition to the Vietnam War and apartheid, and for the acceptance of the hippie lifestyle.


Since the amendment of Section 15 of the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) in 1975, students were barred from being members of, and expressing support or opposition to, any political parties or "any organization, body or group of persons which the Minister, after consultation with the Board, has specified in writing to the Vice-Chancellor to be unsuitable to the interests and well-being of the students or the University." However, in October 2011, the Court of Appeal ruled that the relevant provision in Section 15 UUCA was unconstitutional due to Article 10 of the Federal Constitution pertaining to freedom of expression.

Since the act prohibiting students from expressing "support, sympathy or opposition" to any political party was enacted in 1971, Malaysian students have repeatedly demanded that the ban on political involvement be rescinded. The majority of students are not interested in politics because they are afraid that the universities will take action against them. The U.U.C.A. (also known by its Malaysian acronym AUKU) not however been entirely successful in eliminating student activism and political engagement.

In Kuala Lumpur on 14 April 2012, student activists camped out at Independence Square and marched against a government loan program that they said charged students high interest rates and left them with debt.

The largest student movement in Malaysia is the Solidariti Mahasiswa Malaysia (SMM)(Student Solidarity of Malaysia). SMM is a coalition group that represents numerous student organizations. Currently, SMM is actively campaigning against the UUCA and a free education at primary, secondary and tertiary level.


During the protests of 1968, Mexican government killed an estimated 30 to 300 students and civilian protesters. This killing is known as in the Tlatelolco massacre. killing of an estimated 30 to 300 students and civilians by military and police on October 2, 1968, in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in the Tlatelolco section of Mexico City. The events are considered part of the Mexican Dirty War, when the government used its forces to suppress political opposition. The massacre occurred 10 days before the opening of the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

More recent student movements include Yo Soy 132 in 2012. Yo Soy 132 was a social movement composed for the most part of Mexican university students from private and public universities, residents of Mexico, claiming supporters from about 50 cities around the world. It began as opposition to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican media's allegedly biased coverage of the 2012 general election. The name Yo Soy 132, Spanish for "I Am 132", originated in an expression of solidarity with the original 131 protest's initiators. The phrase drew inspiration from the Occupy movement and the Spanish 15-M movement. The protest movement was self-proclaimed as the "Mexican spring" (an allusion to the Arab Spring) by its first spokespersons, and called the "Mexican occupy movement" in the international press.

United Kingdom

Student political activism has existed in U.K since the 1880s 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 1930s 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 1960s 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 frustrations, such as fees and student representation. In 1962, the first student protest against the Vietnam War was held, with CND. However, student activism did not begin on a large scale until the mid-1960s. 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 major teach-in in Britain in 1965, where students debated the Vietnam War and alternative non-violent means of protest at the London School of Economics, sponsored by the Oxford Union.

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-1970s student activities were held including a protest of up to 80,000 strong in Grosvenor 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, many protests were over more local issues, such as student representation in college governance, better accommodation, lower fees or even canteen prices.

Student protests erupted again in 2010 during the Premiership of David Cameron over the issue of tuition fees, higher education funding cuts and withdrawal of the Education Maintenance Allowance.

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. Some of the first well documented, directed activism occurred on the campuses of black institutions like Fisk and Howard in the 1920s. At Fisk, student's concerns surrounding disciplinary rules designed to undermine black identity coalesced into demands for the resignation of President Fayette Avery McKenzie. Spurred by alum W.E.B. Du Bois' 1924 commencement speech, the students ignored the 10p.m. curfew to protest, and staged subsequent walkouts. After a committee formed to investigate the protests ruled unfavorably on Mckenzie's abilities and handling of the unrest, he resigned on April 16, 1925. Events at Fisk had wide repercussions, as black students elsewhere began to question the repressive status quo of the postwar black university.

The next wave of activism was spurred by Depression-era realities of the 1930s. The American Youth Congress was a student-led organization in Washington, DC, which lobbied the US Congress against war and racial discrimination and for youth programs. It was heavily supported by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

The counterculture era of the 1960s and early 1970s saw several waves of student activists gaining increasing political prominence in American society. Students formed social movements that moved them from resistance to liberation. An early important national student group was the Student's Peace Union, established in 1959. Another highlight of this period was Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) launched in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was 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 were the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Atlanta Student Movement, predominantly African American groups that fought against racism and for integration of public schools across the US.

The longest student strike in American history started on November 6, 1968 and lasted until March 21, 1969 at San Francisco State College to raise awareness of third world student access to higher education.

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. Over four million students participated in this action.

American society saw an increase in student activism again in the 1990s. The popular education reform movement has led to a resurgence of populist student activism against standardized testing and teaching, as well as more complex issues including military/industrial/prison complex and the influence of the military and corporations in education 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.


  • Sunflower Student Movement in 2014.
  • Anti Black Box Movement in 2015.
  • References

    Student activism Wikipedia