What determines student activism?

What determines university students’ political mobilization in an era when about a quarter of young people of their age group are university students? Editors of a book on Student Activism in Asia (2012), researching student social movements post-war to the early 21st century, found university student activism is inconsistent with periods of activity and inactivity. Most are liberal, aiming for democracy, but some movements are right wing or religious. Even in peak periods, most students are not involved although they are often gathered together on urban campuses, they’re taught to think critically, they don’t have families to support, and they’re usually allowed some form of student government organization. Student power is based on self-identity as an activist, influenced by the university system, the government, other social movements and allies, and the national economic development.[1] As democracy spreads, universities expand, and international models fade, these forces oppose massive student movements. Like other scholars, they didn’t predict the youth-led uprisings of 2011.

The post-colonial expansion of access to universities replacing a few elite universities led to a decrease in activism as students no longer felt privileged by their special status to monitor their governments. Also, more graduates are associated with more competition for jobs and more unemployment, and therefore more caution about challenging the status quo. Some movements encouraged students in other countries and participated in international student organizations, but their activism was mainly localized. The waves identified by Weiss and Aspinall are a leftist egalitarian wave during the Cold War from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a New Left wave protesting government emphasis on economic development starting in the late 1960s to the 1980s, and a wave for democracy in opposition to authoritarian regimes beginning in the 1980s in a period of massification of the university system. Transnationalism was made more difficult by censorship of student media. Weiss and Aspinall reported a decline in the power of student protests in the last two decades.[2] Student movements are most likely to arise when other political forces are repressed: “Authoritarian regimes and student protest are often entwined in a fateful embrace.”[3] Their research would explain student activism of 2011 and beyond as enabled by spread of social media that exposed the corruption of ruling regimes and enabled protesters to learn from their peers around the world.

[1] Weiss and Aspinall, p. 28.

[2] Weiss and Aspinall, p. 281.

[3] Weiss and Aspinall, p. 282.

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