A decade of student dissent

Various authors look back on student revolts worldwide over the last decade

June 24, 2021 · 10 min read
One of the first of the 2010-11 UK student protests in London, 10 November 2010. Photo: lewishamdreamer (Creative Commons)

The student protests of 2010-11 in the UK marked a period of largescale demonstrations and occupations in defence of education as a public good. A fight was also waged against the cuts in public services. The regular police ‘kettles’ of demonstrators and arrests of so many young people who participated in the protests served as a warning of what was to come.

Mass movements led by young people were not limited to the UK. Throughout the past decade, student revolts have taken place worldwide, opposing governments’ attempts to privatise and marketise education.

UK, 2010

The centrality of the 2010-11 student movement in shaping contemporary British politics and fomenting a new generation of activists is undeniable. In terms of size, scale and militancy it is only matched by the anti-war movement of the early 2000s or anti-poll tax battles of the early 1990s. The difference between those movements and this one was one of composition. As with many student movements, leftwing factions carried disproportionate influence and activists went on to build careers on reputations achieved as students. There is a clear interest among some to lionise the movement and their role within it. This has led to a veritable factory of misinformation and revisionism.

This began early. At the end of 2011, in a brief review for Red Pepper of one of the countless books about the student movement, I made the point that ‘one could easily assume that the movement was sparked by a Facebook event and thrived exclusively through the conduit of a university occupation, and not necessarily as a consequence of courageous school students walking out at the risk of arrest and loss of their education maintenance allowance (EMA).’ Since then, things have only got worse. For someone with no knowledge of the student movement and access only to the Guardian, it would be easy to assume that the student movement was led by a few bourgeoise liberals. In fact, the beating heart of the movement always was the young, black and Asian working-class.

Ashok Kumar

Dublin, 2010

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) organised the ‘Education not Emigration’ march on 3 November 2010, weeks before Ireland formally requested assistance from the IMF following the Eurozone credit crisis. These walks around the city centre formed an annual part of the USI’s pre-budget PR campaign, but the USI, traditionally a training ground for Irish political functionaries, was being actively out-manoeuvred on campuses by the grassroots Free Education for Everyone (FEE) campaign, which had a presence in third-level colleges across the 32 counties. A loose affiliation of republican, socialist and anarchist activists had been engaged in local occupations and blockades of visits by government ministers. November 2010 marked a highpoint in mobilisation, with 40,000 students on the streets and a significant breakaway group occupying the Department of Finance on Dublin’s Merrion Row.

The police response was swift and violent, with riot squads and mounted units. It had the desired impact. Student militancy declined, fees increased and access to third-level education became more expensive. The political potential of that moment was largely funnelled into the Irish Labour Party, which has since become a political irrelevance. That said, it was a key moment in the political education of many and shone a light on the true nature of the state when challenged. Many of those who cut their teeth in student activism at that time played a part in the marriage equality and abortion referendums in 2015 and 2018 respectively, while also taking part in the anti-water privatisation campaign of 2014-15, possibly the largest social movement in modern Ireland. Unfortunately, without a broader political project, the true potential of the 2008-11 student militancy was lost.

Eoin Griffin

Chile, 2011

The 2011 wave of student protests in Chile was the biggest social movement in the country’s history until the uprising of October 2019. Between May and November of that year, around a million students mobilised across the country, coordinating weekly flash mobs, rallies, demonstrations and occupations. Students demanded public and universal free education, the end of marketisation and the democratisation of universities and education policy. The protests drastically changed national policies and politics and by 2016 a new government had implemented a free education policy.

Students were politicised by these events and went on to form new political parties representing alternatives to the traditional neoliberal consensus. Beyond these direct impacts, the long-lasting legacy of the 2011 movement was to popularise the culture of neoliberal opposition. It took a decade for these ideas to spread more widely but by October 2019, millions of people occupied the streets and forced the country to a standstill, demanding the end of neoliberalism.

Hector Rios-Jara

Colombia, 2011

The 2011 student protests in Colombia were a response to the government’s attempts to turn education into a commodity and usher in a wave of neoliberal privatisation. Protesters, distinguished by their use of colourful art and culture, were victorious.

The period also served as a catalyst for reinvigorating social movements in Colombia, which had been systematically attacked and weakened, especially under two terms of far-right authoritarian president Alvaro Uribe Velez’s rule. Students have stood alongside communities and workers for almost a century in an alliance that continues to this day as the country is experiencing strikes from the most important trade unions and mass mobilisations by Colombia’s indigenous, Afro-descendant and peasant communities.

Sebastian Ordoñez Muñoz

Quebec, 2012

Building on a history of student strikes since the late 1960s, in 2012 Québécois were able to halt a tuition fee hike and overturn an anti-protest law introduced earlier that year. The strike provides a hopeful example of opportunities for collective action against austerity.

From 2010, Québec students’ unions and student activists began organising against government plans to raise tuition fees. In autumn 2011, major mobilisations began, with large outreach and educational campaigns on campuses along with tens of thousands joining demonstrations against the proposed tuition fee hike and neoliberal policies, rooted in a process of direct democracy through student general assemblies. These continued with strikes in the winter of 2012 and mass monthly demonstrations that involved hundreds of thousands of people. By May an antiprotest law was introduced, but this led to increased community support for the strike as part of a broader movement against austerity and neoliberalism. Eventually, the tuition increase was cancelled and the anti-protest bill was repealed when the government was forced out of office in September.

Bader Takriti

Ukraine, Nov 2013 – Feb 2014: Euromaidan

Hundreds of thousands took to Kiev’s streets in protest at government corruption, leading to the ousting of President Yanukovych.

Taiwan, 2014: Sunflower Movement

On 18 March, hundreds of protesters occupied Taiwan’s national legislature for three weeks in protest at the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement without adequate review. The CSSTA would have strengthened trade links with China by facilitating unprecedented investment, leaving Taiwan open to political pressure from Beijing, and the ruling Kuomintang party had attempted to push it through without a clause-by-clause review. In response, 300 protesters stormed and occupied the Legislative Yuan and, later, Executive Yuan, for the first time in Taiwan’s history, while hundreds more gathered outside, rejecting the trade pact and demanding legislation allowing for greater scrutiny of future trade agreements with China.

Despite a brutal police response, hundreds of thousands returned to the streets the following week, sunflowers in hand. Ultimately, the CSSTA was effectively stalled, the government agreed in principle to legislating for greater oversight on negotiations with China, and the flurry of public political engagement contributed to the defeat of the government in 2016.

Hong Kong, Aug 2014 – Dec 2014; Mar 2019 – present: Umbrella Revolution

Tens of thousands occupied the streets in protest at Beijing reneging on its promise of universal suffrage in Hong Kong by 2017. The movement was revived in 2019 in protest against the proposed Extradition Law Amendment Bill.

South Africa, March 2015: Rhodes Must Fall

University of Cape Town students demanded the removal of a statue of coloniser Cecil Rhodes, protesting and occupying university buildings. Their success triggered a nationwide decolonisation movement in education and inspired the subsequent #FeesMustFall movement.

The revolution has tried to learn from past mistakes, internalising lessons from recent history and the Arab Spring uprisings

Malaysia, 2017–19: UNDI18

Political activism among university students has been significantly curtailed since the 1975 amendments to Malaysia’s Universities and University Colleges Act. However, thanks to social media, a vibrant youth movement has blossomed outside the ivory towers of education. Since the pivotal 2018 elections, the youth movement has become a major force, organising with extreme efficiency in urban centres and rural networks across the country. Their goal? Rooting out the rot left by the old guard and reshaping the nation’s trajectory.

Much like Malaysian society itself, the movement isn’t a monolith: there are Islam-informed activists, progressive feminists, education advocates and neoliberal wings, as well as a strong coalition of reform-minded youth leaders who have spearheaded significant changes to Malaysia’s political landscape. In 2019, Undi18 campaigners pushed parliament to amend the constitution to lower the voting age from 21 to 18, with an automatic voter registration initiative set for a 2021 launch.

These networks of youth movements have launched the world’s first youth-led digital parliament project (Parlimen Digital); hyperlocal voter programmes and networks (UndiSabah, for one); programmes targeted at bridging the gap at an education and societal level; and an entire political party, MUDA (Youth), in response to recent machinations of an old political guard sensing power slipping from its hands.

Samantha Cheh

Bangladesh, July – August 2018

After two students in Dhaka were killed by a speeding bus, hundreds took to the streets to demand justice, safer roads and stricter traffic laws, blockading roads for nine days until the cabinet drafted new policy.

Albania, December 2018 – February 2019

Thousands of students in Tirana marched against proposed tuition fee increases. Fees were halved and proposed fees for retaking exams dropped entirely.

India, December 2019 – January 2020

Students protesting against the Islamophobic Citizenship Amendment Act at Muslim-majority Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University were brutally suppressed by the police, and a Hindutva mob attacked students at Jawaharlal Nehru University, sparking solidarity protests at universities across the country.

This article originally appeared in Issue #230: Struggles for Truth, published December 2020

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