Historically, the development of student movements around the world has been heavily linked with nationalism, anti-colonialism, modernity, and – more recently - the development of the welfare state (i.e. they were pro all four of those). In South Korea, the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee was overthrown by students (Park Chung-Hee prudently relocated Seoul National University across the river from the centre of government to make sure the same didn’t happen to him). In conjunction with the military, student movements were also involved in regime change in Bolivia, South Vietnam, Sudan, and Ghana. Even in the developed world, student movements of the 60s had broad political aims – protesting the war in America, for social revolution in France, and for the “nationalist” cause in Quebec.
Over the last forty years, however, student politics has changed significantly. Over time, student movements and organizations became less political. Rarely do they play a “vanguardist” elements leading a social or political revolution (last year’s “Sunflower” movement in Taiwan being a rare exception); rather, they have tended to become more concerned with “student” issues, such as student welfare, tuition fees, etc
Back in the 60s, this would have seemed unlikely. The expansion of educational opportunity to poorer students was widely seen as being likely to further radicalize the student body. Yet, in fact, what massification seems mostly to have done is to make the student body more like the world at large: big, diverse, and anything but homogeneous in political thought. That makes student organizations less likely to be vanguards for social or political revolutions, but it doesn’t preclude them from uniting to fight defensive battles when they feel their interests are threatened (for example, on tuition fees) as we have seen in places like Chile, South Korea and Quebec.
That said, even while student organizations become increasingly organized and deal with a narrower set of issues, they have been reluctant to actually don the mantle of “interest groups” (which they quite clearly are in many cases). That’s because there is in many cases a very strong nostalgic tie to the image of students engaged in spontaneous mass demonstration (which is broad and participatory), and because the day-to-day work of an interest group inevitably involves working through a more corporatist (and hence more elitist and prone to “capture”) kind of representative structure.
In Canada, the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and Canadian Alliance of Student Associations - both formed in the early/mid-90s (note: the author was the first National Director of the latter in 1995-96) - were possibly the first student groups anywhere in the world that actually viewed themselves as interest groups rather than "movements" and were prepared to go almost exclusively down the insider-lobbying track. But they are no longer alone.
Their most obvious counterpart is the European Students' Union (ESU), which is a federation of various national unions. Most of its members haven’t eschewed movement-style politics, but since ESU’s focus is to lobby Brussels, ESU has adjusted the style of its work to mirror to the rather technocratic work done by the European Commission, the ESU has turned into one of the wonkiest and best-spoken student groups in the world. It talks intelligibly (arguably more so than some national governments) about quality assurance and the role of students in ensuring it (do take a look at their series of publications on the subject). It also has done a lot of work looking at graduate employability and how to improve it. These are not subjects with which student groups have historically concerned themselves and it is refreshing to hear a student take on them
The UK's National Union of Students has perhaps gone even further in that it seems to have made a strategic decision to primarily act as a service organization and drive improvements in the student experience. It has gone about this task by engaging in a series of partnership deals with other post-secondary partners. Examples of this include the National Student Survey and the Student Engagement Partnership, which acts as a resource for institutional practitioners across the country. It also creates a set of tools for individual member institutions to help students benchmark and improve teaching quality at institutions. The NUS approach has certainly plenty of detractors; many would prefer a fire-brand organization to attack the Tory government on fees. But the fact remains: NUS is working hard at contributing to the improvement educational quality and the student experience. Campuses around the world would benefit from similar kinds of initiatives.
Overall, these evolutions represent a welcome shift because universities are better when they have calm, stable and informed student partners actively engaged in improving institutional quality. As massification continues, it is likely that more student groups in other nations will copy these organizations. But it is not inevitable. The image of crowds of youths defying authority is a powerfully romantic one, embodying traditions that stretch back to the French revolution. Old confrontational traditions die hard; and the idea that the exercise of student leadership can be as effective behind the scene as in the streets is not always an easy sell.
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