Student Movements around the World

“Behold, our butter stinketh!—Give us, therefore, butter that stinketh not” – the rally cry behind the very first student protest on American soil (Noah B, 2011). Initiated by student Asa Dunbar in 1766, students at Harvard University protested against the University’s declining quality of food served in its dining halls. College President Edward Holyoke was greatly incensed by this act of insubordination and proceeded to suspend half of the College’s student body when they refused to give up the instigators of the protest.

On May 4th 1919, students and intellectuals held a demonstration at Tianan gate, China to protest against the Chinese government’s diplomatic failure during the Treaty of Versailles negotiations (Lee, 2009). The movement which began in Beijing eventually spread to Shanghai and other parts of China and had an immediate effect as it led to the Chinese government not signing the peace treaty in 1919. However, more importantly, it marked the first time ordinary citizens, primarily students, mobilised for a political cause. This radicalised Chinese intellectual thought and eventually lead to the creation of the Communist Party in the country.

The shutdown of the University of Nanterre in May of 1968, Paris leads to a dramatic sequence of events kicked off by student protests that almost brought down the French government (Barker, 2008). Acts of student protests leads to the French authorities shutting down the university but it was the subsequent brutality shown by the police towards the protestors that really instigated student revolutionaries. The actions of the students eventually snowballed into a country wide protest which saw almost a fourth of all workers in France going on strike and the economy coming to a stagnant halt. It was only the actions of President De Gaulle to call for an early election and negotiate higher wages and minimum wage which quelled “the revolution” (Maurin & McNally, 2008).

These few notable incidents are but a few examples of student protests that have directly or indirectly shaped a number of political, social and cultural movements of the last two centuries. The 1960s for example, represented a period of major social and cultural flux throughout the Western world and a wave of student protests were at the heart of these changes. Student movements during the period came to the forefront of media and public attention for the first time (Altbach, 1989). Academic discussion on the subject of student protests and revolutions has also heavily focused heavily on the movements in the 1960s. The post-World War Two era of Western society was marked by a sharp expansion of universities and higher education levels (Broadhurst, 2014). This generation of students was not satisfied with the stringent ideals of their predecessors, strict campus rules and historical inequalities that many faced.

These movements thus, either became the source or a reflection of the changing social structures at the time. In the United States, the civil rights movement and the dissention over the Vietnam War became the major drivers of student protests during the period. In France, the growing militancy of the working class combined with the excessive use of violence by the police against student protestors led to the revolts in 1968 (Maurin & McNally, 2008). In Italy, the marriage between the working class and student protestors was the most prominent as Ginsborg (1990) writes “the Italian protest movement was the most profound and long-lasting in Europe. It spread from the schools and universities into the factories, and then out again into society as a whole’. Germany, Poland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia and the United Kingdom were also sites of student demonstrations during the late 1960s. While these movements only lasted for a few months and in some cases had little long-term impact, they demonstrated the ability of students to shape movements and ideas.  In fact it can be argued that the primary result of the movements in the 1960s was not felt immediately but rather felt through the impact it has had on the cultural consciousness (Altbach, 1989).

Additionally, the movements in the 1960s also had an effect on educational institutes themselves. Klemenčič (2014) suggests “One of the notable outcomes of these protests was the consolidation of student representation within university decision-making.” Student governments became important part of democratic universities. These movements also had an impact on the examination process within universities. In France, the protests of 1968 led to a more lenient examination system that saw more students achieving academic credentials (Maurin & McNally, 2008).

However, the 1960s were not the only period of student movements even though they may have not existed as a collective wave in any other period. Developing nations for example have had students play a major part in their freedom struggle. Creating a common idea of  nationhood and a joint collective identity is not possible without the active involvement of students. Students in countries such as Kenya, India, Burma, Indonesia et al played an active role in those countries overcoming their colonial rulers (Altbach, 1989). However, apart from these freedom struggles and the handful of examples mentioned above, student movements throughout history have been sporadic. This is primarily because by their very nature, it is hard to maintain the momentum of a student movement as student leaders do not stay on campus for a long amount of time. Additionally, they also “seldom possess the substantial and procedural knowledge, experience, and networks required for the larger political stage.” (Altbach & Klemenčič, 2014). Despite this, they can play a key role in directing and giving impetus to social and political movements.

Since the turn of the century, we have witnessed another global wave of student movements particularly over the last five years. Speaking to The Atlantic, student protests historian, Angus Johnston (Wong, 2015) says “There’s certainly something of a movement moment happening right now“ further adding, “The campus environment right now has, for the past couple of years, reminded me a lot of the early- to mid-60s moment, where there was a lot of stuff happening, a lot of energy—but also a tremendous amount of disillusionment and frustration with the way that things were going in the country as a whole and on the campuses themselves.” This sentiment is also prevalent in other parts of the world with student demonstrations flaring up in a number of locations.

The diversification of the student body and the globalisation of the modern university could have potentially led to the disappearance of student movements as students with different backgrounds would have a harder time to find a common cause to unite against. However, the diversification has only led to a greater intermingling ideas and communities and their spread on a global scale. Even though younger voter turnouts seem to be on the decline in a number of democracies, students have found a number of a new ways to remain politically engaged (Altbach & Klemenčič, 2014). Students are now more likely to initiate political discussions through online forums and over social media. They are increasingly engaged through these mediums and show their involvement by signing petitions, joining groups online or via advocacy social networks. The recent International Womens Day protest was organised and grew largely in part due to the extensive promotion of the campaign over social media platforms. “More than the tactics employed, students are often fighting for causes that mirror those existing since the colonial colleges first opened their doors.” writes Cristopher Broadhurst (2014). Reminiscent of the movements in the 60s, grievances of minority communities is a major driver of student protests today especially in the West.

The increased marketization of higher education is also another factor driving these modern protests. Public funding for universities has been declining in a number of countries around the world including the likes of Brazil, Ukraine and Pakistan among a host of others (Marcucci & Usher, 2012). Even in countries where spending hasn’t reduced, protests have taken place against rising tuition fees and increased privatised funding of universities. This ties in with a growing global dissent against modern capitalism that has led to an increase in social and economic inequalities. The rest of this article will take a look at some of the major movements taking place in the world today and the forces driving them.



Like many other former European colonies, Indian student movements played a significant role in the freedom struggle of the country. The tradition of student involvement in politics in India, started in 1920 with Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-cooperation movement (Altbach, 1968). Students provided most of the manpower for this movement as well as helped the Indian National Congress organise events. Students continued to play a significant role for the remainder of the colonial rule actively participating in protests and led to the formation of various student groups like the AISF (All India Students Federation) and the Indian Students Congress. However, student activism almost entirely collapsed after independence, “Freeing India from British rule had been the central goal of the student movement, and, once this was achieved, not only did the dominant motive for student activism disappear but leaders of the Congress Party actually ‘urged students to stay out of politics’” (Gill & Defronzo, 2009). Post-independence student movements in the 20th century were isolated agitations and occurred sporadically. They were usually not aimed at a large ideological struggle but were rather aimed at a local issues or problems within institutions (Altbach, 1989).

The turn of the century has also brought with it an increase in occurrences and greater attention being paid to student politics in the media and the general populace. The past few years have in particular been marked by a number of notable agitations that became mainstream talking points in the country. Agitations that have been characterised by violence and polarisation. Students in higher education in Indian institutions find their voice primarily through Student Unions and student organisations. The most notable example of student protests over the last few years has been the major protest that occurred in Jawaharlal National University (JNU), New Delhi in 2016. The protests started with the president of the JNU being arrested for charges of sedition filed by a rival student group – the ABVP (a student group linked to the currently ruling BJP). This led to a number of protests around the country over issues of nationalism and free speech. Members of the ruling party and right wing leaders and commentators were quick to defend the government’s actions while ruling party and leftist leaders considered it another example of growing intolerance within the country.

The JNU case is reflective of how educational institutions have become the battleground for the ideological struggle between India’s secular left and the nationalist right. Student affiliations to different political parties has led to power struggles on campuses as each political group tries to gain a foothold. More recently, students of the left-affiliated All India Student’s Association (AISA) and the ABVP classed in Ramjas College, New Delhi once again leading to violence. While these incident have certainly brought student movements to the forefront of the Indian political arena they are not oriented towards any particular objective. While some commentators have compared recent activity to the protests that rocked Paris in 1969, Indian students are not united by common grievances or agendas. The exchange of ideas and opinions is crucial to a democracy and the university provides an ideal platform for such an exchange. However, communalism in the student politics of India has stifled this presenting the darker side of student politics.

Unlike other student protests taking place around the world today, Indian students are not fighting in unison against a capitalist education system or concerns about inequalities of minorities (although these forces are certainly present), they are fighting for the ability to be able to express their opinions freely. The government’s response to the growing dissention has unfortunately been one that aims to in some cases supress or monopolise student opinion to their cause. If concerns surrounding the suppression of free speech continues, it may only serve to further mobilise students and their voices.


As mentioned above the United States has a long and storied history of student protests. The counterculture movement of the 1960s was perhaps the most noteworthy period of student activism in American history. The Civil rights movement combined with growing frustration with the government over Vietnam and rising tuition fees all motivated these developments (Johnston, 2015). The issues changed from individual institutional issues to a singular social issue in the form of the Civil rights movement and then to a number of social issues. There was also a shift in the profile of participants, from primarily black to multi-racial groups going after a myriad issues (Ellsworth & Burns, 1970).

Campus protests in the United States have once again become commonplace over the last decade and echo the sentiments of five decades ago. Starting with the Occupy movement to more recent protests against President Trump’s election and policies, this new wave of protests is aimed at social grievances and concerns over growing bigotry in society. Much like the protests of the 1960s, these recent movements are also closely linked to social injustices against African-Americans. Young black men like Travis Martin and Michael Brown were shot and killed by police officers representing growing violence against African-American youths which sparked the Black Lives Matter movement (White, 2016). These men were contemporaries of today’s college students and led students to becoming involved in a number of anti-racist protests across campuses. Protests took place in a number of cities including Baltimore, Oakland and New York. One of the more notable incidents took place in the University of Missouri where students riled up against the administration as they failed to adequately respond to certain racist incidents that had taken place on campus. The University’s football team decided not to play and train until the President of the University, Tom Wolfe resigned (White, 2016). Eventually, Wolfe ceded to the students demand and left his position along with the university chancellor.

Protestors watch a bonefire on Sproul Plaza during a rally against the scheduled speaking appearance by Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos on the University of California at Berkeley campus on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Berkeley, Calif. The event was canceled out of safety concerns after protesters hurled smoke bombs, broke windows and started a bonfire. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Feminist movements have also found a large number of participants in the form of college students with the recent women’s march in Washington being the most notable example of this. Apart from social causes, these movements are also targeting the growing surge of the right-wing in the United States epitomised by the election of Donald Trump. The millennial vote in almost every vote during the 2016 presidential election swayed against Trump and in some cases overwhelmingly so (Tyson & Maniam, 2016). Thousands of protesters (primarily students), gathered in a number of cities across the United States at the eve of his election raising the banner of “Not my president”. Students once again rallied against Trump more recently when he proposed a ban on individuals travelling to the United States from certain countries. American universities have embraced globalisation wholeheartedly over the last couple of decades. The formation of a more diverse student body raised the concern that whether students from different social backgrounds will struggle to agree upon a common grievance and lack a collective a student identity (Klemenčič, 2014). However, protests in the United States has proved that the current generation of students share similar ideological concerns despite their varied experiences. It was not just Muslim students who protested against Trump’s travel ban nor was it just black students protesting against increased violence towards their community.

Much like India, the response to these student protests has been mixed. However, in contrast to India, where protests are against the right wing suppressing free speech, the right in The United States has raised concerns of violation of free speech rights by left wing protestors. There have been incidents where student protests against right wing representatives have turned violent. Middlebury College in Vermont and University of California Berkeley. The latter in particular is notable because Berkeley College was at the heart of the student movement in the 1960s. Student protestors turned violent over controversial alt-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos attending the university to give a talk. These incidents have sparked protests over the limitations of free speech as Conservative critics in particular have criticised these students for being intolerant. Much like the violence in India, the failure to discuss our different positions peacefully can severely undermine the progression of ideas. This violence can implicate other non-violent protestors and make them even more vulnerable to backlash. However, the activism of young American students against social injustices is one to be admired. With an increased mobilisation and politicisation of students it is unlikely that student movements in America will slowdown especially with Donald Trump as president. However progress requires communication with those whom we disagree with. As Professor Stanger, a victim of the violence in Middlebury, states “our constitutional legacy will depend on whether Americans can relearn how to engage civilly with one another” (2017).


Apart from the social and ideological fights that are being waged on the campuses of universities in countries like India and the US, another major cause of the upsurge in student political activity is concern over rising tuition fees. The marketization of higher education has been the norm for many countries and this has led to increasing tuition fees and student debt. Student protesters in Chile have opposed the neo-liberal education system of their country ushering a large scale movement that has persisted for nearly a decade against two different government regimes.

The Pinochet dictatorship that lasted in Chile between 1973 and 1990 introduced a number of neoliberal reforms to the education system in 1982. Education would be shifted from being a state priority to a more privatised, free market structure. The new, private universities had to rely on self-funding, receiving no funding from the state, and thus began to charge tuition fees from students (Bellei, Cabalin, & Orellana, 2014). This led to the division of the Chilean education system into a traditional (privately and publically funded institutions) and a new system (funded only privately). The “new” system now dominates majority of the Chilean higher education market today “accounting for 72% of the national post-secondary enrolment” and is responsible for 78% of spending on education which is primarily funded by student tuition fees (Bellei, Cabalin, & Orellana, 2014). This has also led the Chilean education system to become one of the most expensive systems in the world, per capita (Wong, 2015). Deep inequalities also characterise this free market system, with poor students receiving schooling underdeveloped and underfunded state schools (Long, 2011). The grievances over the neoliberal features of the Chilean education system first led to student protests in 2006 carried out by high school students. However, it was not until 2011 that the situation came to a boiling point. For months, students protested relentlessly in an act of political mobilisation not seen in the country since the initiation of democracy in 1990. These large scale, and often violent, protests led to the plummeting of president Sebastian Pinera’s approval rating and eventual ouster from office. These student protests also served to inspire a number of other movements around the world that have taken place since.

The new government of Michelle Bachelet had promised to bring change to the education system and cede to student demands, however economic slowdown coupled with corruption scandals meant that reform was too slow and not enough. Visuals of burnt buses, barricaded streets and thousands of students shouting in unison continued in 2015 and 2016. Bachelet’s approval rating fell just as her predecessors had primarily driven by her failure to satisfy student demands. This has led to disenchantment with the current two party system, but to the credit of the student protestors their voices have not been silenced.

Unlike movements in US and India where student movements have received media attention but no legislative attention, the ones in Chile have actually led to changes. Whereas, students in US and India fail to make a mark on legislators, education reforms are a key agenda for policy makers in Chile. This is because of strong media and public support and the general dissent over corruption, economic slowdown and neoliberal failings. But the changes have been slow and have not come at the rate that students have demanded. Still, Chile has come a long way from a time when student federations were entirely banned. Student organisations such as the Confederation of Chilean Students, have put relentless pressure on the government and have united the student body behind one major objective. With elections in Chile shortly forthcoming, the education agenda will be key for all candidates to address. Be it Pinera again or a candidate from the new left, if student concerns are not satisfactorily addressed, protests will continue to be a staple of Chilean life.

South Africa

Another example of students coming out to stand up against rising tuition fees and social inequalities can be found in South Africa. Student protests run deep in the political culture African continent, perhaps more so than any other region in the modern world. Almost every country’s independence struggle had a strong aspect of student participation (Altbach, 1969). Further, with its contemporary history being one marred by post-independence economic and regime failures, students have had plenty of worthy causes to take up arms against. In South Africa, student protests have expressed dissent against these very issues of colonialism, income inequality and excessive tuition fees. Since 2015, student activists have rocked the political arena of South Africa bringing to the forefront all the aforementioned issues and has left the current political landscape of the country in turmoil.

The protests began in the University of Cape Town in 2015, when students spoke out against the usage of colonial symbols on the campus, most prominently a statue of Cecil John Rhodes. This idea eventually spread to other universities as they too demanded change from the “whiteness” of South African higher education (Luescher & Klemenčič, 2016). Eventually the movement transformed from #RhodesMustFall to #FeesMustFall in opposition to the government’s plan to increase tuition fees. The students also demanded free higher education as had been promised to them. Over the last two years exams have been delayed, campuses have been shut down, buildings have been set on fire, clashes with police have occurred and effigies have been set ablaze as the student movement in South Africa has taken a violent turn. Activists represent almost every class, race and culture have taken part in a largely leaderless movement (Luescher, Loader, & Mugume, 2016). Much like the protests in Chile, protests and demonstrations have become a part of the daily lives of students in South Africa as the issue of free education has been propelled to prime importance in the political landscape of the country.

It is also important to note that the protests in South Africa also arise out of the country’s long struggle with racism akin to the United States. While the population is 80 percent black but only 16 percent of these attend college as compared to 55 percent of white students (Marcus, 2017). Black, Indian and coloured individuals also face higher unemployment rates as compared to their white contemporaries. The problem is further aggrieved when we consider people between the ages of 15-24. Less than a quarter of the students at top rated universities are black and most attend poorly managed and resource scarce community colleges and public universities (Luescher, Loader, & Mugume, 2016). Rorisang Moseli, student the black president of the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Cape Town encapsulated the protests as “a product of a perfect story of triple social challenges—namely, poverty, inequality, and unemployment—all with the backdrop of apartheid and colonialism” (Marcus, 2017).

While the demands of students have been heard loud and clear, the government is no closer to finding a solution. A shift to free colleges could cost the government about 4.6 billion dollars a year and generating this could impede economic growth (Marcus, 2017). There are also concerns that free education will further tighten the noose on universities. As the government struggles to cope with growing student demands leaving the country in turmoil, the protests indicate to the rest of the world the potency of student political pressure.

Hong Kong


In 2014, students in Hong Kong found a new symbol for dissent and demonstration – yellow umbrellas. Students like Nathan Law and Joshua Wong became the faces of the largest political movement in the region since Tiananmen Square. From September to December, students organised sit-ins, protest camps and marches throughout Hong Kong demanding universal suffrage in the election of the chief executive Hong Kong. The current system selects the chief executive via a small-circle electorate backed by the government in Beijing.

When the Chinese government took over Hong Kong in 1997 it allowed the city to maintain its free market system and other democratic freedoms and promised eventual universal suffrage to choose its own chief executive (the highest legislative position in the city). However, there is a growing fear of China encroaching upon the cities liberties instead of granting it any more. The umbrella movement was predicated by the Anti-National Education movement in 2012 when students had protested against changes to education system from a liberal one to a restricted one along the lines of that followed in mainland China. In 2014, the cause for protest had changed but it was still primarily led by student organisations and individuals from the academia.

Out of all the student movements that have taken place over the last few years around the globe, the student leaders of Hong Kong face the biggest challenge of all, as they protest against a non-democratic regime. The movement has since lost momentum due to lack of coordination and unified leadership over the protests and forceful opposition by the State which has been criticised by international organisations. The scenario is one of pessimism in Hong Kong as the Chinese government seems to have succeeded in quelling the protests. Immediately following the election of conservative Carrie Lam as the new chief executive of the city by a primarily Beijing backed election committee, 9 protest leaders from the protest movement were arrested. The message from the Chinese government is clear, dissent will not be tolerated and change is not forthcoming anytime soon. This also propels the fears of those who believed that China is moving from “one country, two systems” to “one country, one system” (Chan, 2016). This combined with the fact that a number of pro-democracy leaders were expelled from the Hong Kong legislative assembly after they refused to swear allegiance to Beijing only exasperates fears that the student movement which had caught the attention of the world in 2014 has been subdued by an authoritarian regime. However, leaders of the movement have not given up hope just yet, as Wong says “This is not an easy time for us. We still face suppression. … But we’ll still continue the fight.” (Kaiman, 2017).

Even if the umbrella movement has not led to significant changes and further oppression it would be naïve to label it a failure. As Altbach (1969) writes ‘Through the issues that they (student protestors) focus on, they sometimes point to flashpoints of concern, sometimes before these issues reach a social boiling point. This may be particularly true for authoritarian societies, where free political expression is not permitted”. Despite the fact that the movement hasn’t led to immediate changes, protests on such a large scale can achieve something far greater – the political awakening of an entire generation. According to public opinion surveys the younger generation is most inclined to Hong Kong localism. The idea of radical localism, one that advocates complete independence of Hong Kong, has already seeped into the minds of a younger generation of students and it is unlikely to vanish anytime soon (Chan, 2016). This is a far cry from the student movements of the 1970s and 1980s that supported the idea of inclusion within China under the colonial rule. The struggle for protestors today is one that still seems long and arduous but the umbrella movement and the reactions from Beijing may have only strengthened the resolve among the Hong Kong youth.

A global trend

The radical political movements of the 1960s sparked what became to be known as the New Left movement. Students all over the world began to protest against capitalism, inequalities and prevalent authority structures as Novack (1961) wrote “Despite the differences in their surroundings and in their immediate problems, they have been formulating convergent political conclusions”. In 2017, the political landscape has seen the rise of a wave right wing leaders in countries including the US, UK, France, Philippines among others. However, in campuses around the world the current generation of millennials is continuing the tradition of students in the 60s by challenging the ideas of the establishment and the right.

The massification of the university which was thought to put an end to student political activism is in fact fuelling it. The number of students in universities in South Africa, Chile and other developing countries has more than doubled (Marcus, 2017). In the United States enrolment has increased 48 percent since 1990 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2015). Despite this government spending on education all across the world has declined while tuition fees has risen (The World Bank, 2014). With crippling student debts and increasing burden of higher education expenses and the lack of jobs to compensate for this, students today realise that the future is not as rosy as it seemed. All of this has mobilised students against the existing system, as they demand free higher education. As seen in the examples of Chile and South Africa, the unilateral focus on reducing tuition fees can significantly impact the political landscape.

Students are also leading the charge against inequalities and fighting for democratic freedoms. Be it the right to free speech in India or the right to universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the youth of today continues to exhibit strong anti-authoritarian tendencies. In the United States, the feminist, the black lives and the LGBTQ movements have all been propelled forward by an active involvement of students.

Irrespective of the cause that sparks their actions, the resurgence of the student political activism around the world has shown that students can and continue to be an effective force in bringing about social and political changes. As Broadhurst (2014) writes “Regardless of the time period, the tactics employed, or the causes fought for, one commonality exists among student activists: They are trying to change the world. That world might be as small as their campus or as large as humanity itself, but each student, each group, each movement, is moved in some way to better society”


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About the Author

Sapan Taneja

Sapan Taneja is a graduate of The University of Warwick where he completed his BSc degree in Economics, Politics, and International Education. He has previously headed the Warwick India Forum, and maintained a keen interest in global socio-economic trends. Apart from this, he has also done prior work as a videographer and is currently working as a freelance writer, editor and a filmmaker.


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