Student activism

Student activism is work done by students to affect political, environmental, economic, or social change. It has often focused on making changes in schools, such as increasing student influence over curriculum or improving educational funding. In some settings, student groups have had a major role in broader political events (reflected in the article called "youth activism.


National Histories


In France, student activists have been extremely influential in shaping recent history. 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 workers, anarchists, and right-wing activists, used the tension to advocate their own causes.

The events in Paris was 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, student 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.

Eastern Europe and the post-Soviet Union states

During communist rule, students in Eastern Europe were the force behind several of the most well-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 Milosevic, 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 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.

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 1865087548.
    • Details the role of student groups in Suharto's fall, including first-hand discussion of events in Jakarta in 1997 and 1998.

The 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), 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.

American society saw an increase in student activism again in the 1990s with the ushering in of the neoliberal policies of Bill Clinton. The popular education reform movement has led to an resurgence of populist student activism against standardized teaching and testing, as well as more complex issues, including rallying against the 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 better funding of public schools and against increased tuitions at colleges or the use of sweatshop labor in manufacturing school apparel.

Current Activities

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. Popular issues include student voice, student rights, school funding, anti-racism in education, tuition increases (in colleges), and many other areas. For more information, see youth activism.

Related Articles

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