Student movements

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.[1]

National histories


In Argentina in 1918 student activism triggered a general modernization of the universities especially tending towards democratization, called The University Revolution (Spanish: Revolución Universitaria) or Argentine university reform. The events started in Córdoba and spread to the rest of the country, and then through much of 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.[2] The National Union of Students has sometimes been at the forefront of campus activism in Australia. As in other Western nations, students across Australia also protested the domination of state-run education on the back of some very strong protests and even violent clashes with police and other educational and state-represented authorities - such clashes probably peaking by the year, 1967. As in other nations, left-wing students, in particular, demanded significant changes in educational perspective that reflected the down-trodden state of the working classes. This perspective was a virtual about-face on the more traditional functionalist view that had previously prevailed in state education. These clashes and the immensity of opposition of students to traditional state-perceived functional views of society paved the way for a 'consciousness' of minority groups within society which has changed the Australian persona on the view of functional society ever since. The newer theory had graduated by the 1980s into what was perceived as a more 'critical view' of society.


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 pacifistic and moralistic CUCND (Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) in December 1965, at a University of Saskatchewan conference. 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, thus middle-class oriented like Canadian students.

SUPA 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 martial law to be declared in Canada after 95 bombings in the October Crisis.

Since the 1970s PIRGs (consensus decision making model. Despite efforts at collaboration, Canadian PIRGs are independent of each other.

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

Anti-Bullying Day (a.k.a. Pink Shirt Day) was created by high school students David Shepherd, and Travis Price of Berwick, Nova Scotia,[3] and is now celebrated annually across Canada.


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.[4] Fueled mostly by Chinese nationalism, Chinese student activism strongly believes that young people are responsible for China's future.[4] This strong nationalistic belief has been able to manifest in several forms such as Democracy, anti-Americanism and Communism.[4]

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.[4] 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, 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.


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 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 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.


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 [1], 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.[5]

In the May 2005 Iranian presidential election, Iran's largest student organization, The Office to Consolidate Unity, advocated a voting boycott.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] In 2009, after the disputed presidential election, a series of student protests broke out. The violent measures used by the Iranian regime to suppress these protests have been the subject of widespread international condemnation.[9]


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[10] 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 during 1960, and again in 1968 – 1970, in opposition to Anpo. During the second riots, leftist activists barricaded themselves in Universities, resulting in armed conflict with the Japanese police force. Activists organized in places known as "agitating points". 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.[11]

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. has successfully made the students fearful to criticize the government .

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 about 15 student organizations. SMM was established in the year of 2003. 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 students and civilian protesters. This killing is known as in the Tlatelolco massacre

South Korea

Main articles: People's Democracy (South Korea) and National Liberation (South Korea)

United Kingdom

Student politics 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 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-1970s 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 UK. Firstly, most British students still had faith in the democratic system and the authorities knew not to be too heavy handed with the protestors. Secondly, many protests were over more local issues, such as student representation in college governance,[12] 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. Though largely non-violent, some students and police were injured in a few isolated incidents.[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,[14] as well as more complex issues including military/industrial/prison complex and the influence of the military and corporations in education[15] 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[16] 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.

Current activities

Template:Ref improve section 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.[17] Popular issues include youth voice, student rights, school funding, drug policy reform, anti-racism in education, tuition increases (in colleges), supporting campus workers' struggles,environment, and many other areas. For more information, see youth activism.

There is new student movements which have made a change in the country where they stand in. For example, Yo Soy 132 is a movement which has begun a new revolution in Mexico which has brought voice to all the "Mexicanos". Movement of Yo Soy 132 begun in Mexico after a large protest which led the government join forces; but what created this movement was for violence against a group of students. This movement has become broad in the way that has brought voice to more Mexicans There is other movements where people are getting united and protesting against their own corrupt country; such like the Chilean Movement [18] where the government tries to be a perfect country for the public, but when in reality it is a country that does not provide an affordable education for the students and low paying jobs which leaves them to see it as having education means living in debt. The Chilean Movement has become the largest protest in the world due to the mass amount of and people who join these have made it successively to have the public's eyes on this movement. Such like this movement there is the Quebec Student Movement [19] which begun because there was 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. With this, students have gone out to the streets and protest against their government which have made a difference in their country winning their tuition decrees in the elections in September 4 receiving the majority votes in Law 12 (education financing).[20] Such as those movements they are against a huge corruption there is in their country, and having the people going out and in the streets to have their voices heard.


A 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."[21]

Thus Freire believed that by eliminating the reflective process from activism, organizers may actually perpetuate the very problems they purport to address.

See also

Schools portal
Education portal



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 1960s." 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)
  • Student Movements in India, An AICUF Publication, Chennai 1999

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)
  • Campus Activism (Networking site with resources for student activists)
  • Student World Assembly

Template:Youth empowerment

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