23 SES 04 B, Higher Education
Over recent decades, scholars have examined changing trends in young people’s political participation – stimulated in part by politicians and social commentators’ concerns about the low turnout rate among younger age groups in elections and their alleged political apathy. Academics have tended to adopt a more positive position, often arguing that, despite a lack of engagement in formal politics, young people continue to be interested in political issues – broadly conceived – and have developed alternative political repertoires including, for example, signing petitions, consuming in an ethical manner and becoming involved in single-issue campaigns (e.g. Hustinx et al. 2012).
The body of work that has explored the political participation of students, specifically, is considerably smaller than that which has examined that of young people more generally, and has tended either to focus on particular national contexts, or to make generalised claims about the political participation of students. Several studies have emphasised the role higher education institutions can often play in the development of political identities and political groupings. Harris (2012) has argued that campuses are important sites for bringing together those with different perspectives and fostering encounter with difference; indeed, she contends that they can constitute ‘micro publics’ in which young people can come to terms with diversity and forge new solidarities. More broadly, scholars have pointed to the key role played by students in protests in various countries across the world – in relation to both HE-specific concerns (most commonly the proposed introduction of or increase in tuition fees), and wider political issues – such as the delays to democratic reform in Hong Kong (Macfarlane 2017) and the conservatism of the ruling party in Turkey (Uzun 2017).
However, there is also a body of literature that gives a less positive account of students’ political participation. First, some scholars have suggested that, far from enabling cross-cultural encounter and the formation of new political alliances, campuses can often reproduce the divisions evident in wider society (e.g. Andersson et al. 2012), while some campus networks can serve to close down political debate and engagement (Brooks et al., 2015; Hensby, 2014). Second, others have argued that many student protests are essentially conservative in nature and narrow in focus. Sukarieh and Tannock (2015), for example, maintain that, rather than addressing fundamental societal inequalities, student protests have typically concentrated on protecting the existing system from proposed restructuring or rolling back current policies to an earlier period of welfare provision. Third, research has pointed to changes in the nature of student representation. Although students are now more likely to be involved in university governance than in the past, Klemenčič (2012) argues that student representation in general has shifted from being conceived of as a political position, defending the collective interests of the student body, to an entrepreneurial role, dedicated to giving advice to senior university managers with respect to quality assurance and service delivery. Finally, some scholars have pointed to the difficulty of articulating a single collective student voice in a massified HE system with an increasingly diverse student body (e.g. Klemenčič 2014).
In this paper, we draw upon data from a six-nation comparative European study to consider the extent to which students consider themselves to be efficacious political actors and how their political activity is understood by higher education staff. We engage with debates about both students’ political participation and the nature and degree of any cross-national differences.
This paper is based upon evidence provided by undergraduate students who took part in 54 focus groups we ran across Europe - in Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain – and 72 members of higher education staff from the same six countries who were interviewed individually. The focus groups were conducted in three higher education institutions in each country, which were sampled to reflect the diversity of the national HE sector. Participants (undergraduate students) were asked to respond to a series of questions about how they understood what it meant to be a student in their country today and how they thought other people saw them. As part of this, they were asked some specific questions about the extent to which they thought students were significant political actors. Participants were also asked to make plasticine models to represent their identity as students, and respond to extracts from policy texts and newspaper articles that discuss students. The focus groups were conducted in English in Denmark, England and Ireland, and in the national language in Germany, Poland and Spain. The focus groups were comprised of mainly national (rather than international) students. Whilst we attempted to include students from a broad range of disciplines and backgrounds, females were over-represented in our achieved sample, and relatively few mature students or those from ethnic minority backgrounds took part. In terms of subjects studied, our sample varied in accordance with what type of courses were offered in each institution but, overall, we managed to achieve a good level of diversity, including natural sciences, humanities, social sciences, the arts and vocational subjects such as nursing and teaching. In addition, we interviewed four members of staff from each of the higher education institutions in which we conducted the student focus groups. Wherever possible, we tried to recruit both academic and professional services staff. All were interviewed in English, and asked a variety of questions about how they understood higher education students in their particular institution and their country more generally. Both focus groups and interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed and then coded in NVivo using inductive and deductive codes.
At this stage, we have not yet completed the data analysis, and so are not able to outline the key findings and arguments. However, our aim is to engage with the following hypotheses: - Hypothesis 1: there is considerable difference, by nation-state, in the extent to which higher education students see themselves as political actors. These differences can be explained, to some degree, by a range of historical, social and political factors, including the level of marketisation evident in the higher education sector. - Hypothesis 2: there is some within-country variation in the extent to which higher education students see themselves as political actors. This is related to the type of higher education institution they attend and/or the students’ social characteristics. - Hypothesis 3: understandings of students as significant political actors are not always shared between students and staff.
Andersson, J., Sadgrove, J. and Valentine, G. 2012. “Consuming Campus: Geographies of Encounter at a British University.” Social and Cultural Geography 13 (5): 501-515. Brooks, R., Byford, K. and Sela, K. 2015. “The changing role of students’ unions within contemporary higher education.” Journal of Education Policy. 30 (2): 165-181. Harris, A. 2012. Young People and Everyday Multiculturalism. New York: Routledge. Hensby, A. 2014. “Networks, Counter-Networks and Political Socialisation – Paths and Barriers to High-Cost/Risk Activism in the 2010/11 Student Protests against Fees and Cuts.” Contemporary Social Science. 9 (1): 92-105. Hustinx, L., Meijs, L., Handy, F. and Cnaan, R. 2012. Monitorial Citizens or Civic Omnivores? Repertoires of Civic Participation among University Students. Youth and Society. 44 (1): 95-117. Klemenčič, M. 2012. “The Changing Conception of Student Participation in Higher Education Governance in the European Higher Education Area.” In: Curaj, A., Scott, P., Vlasceanu, L. and Wilson, L. eds. European Higher Education at the Crossroads: Between the Bologna Process and National Reforms. Dordrecht: Springer. Klemenčič, M. 2014. “Student Power in a Global Perspective and Contemporary Trends in Student Organising.” Studies in Higher Education. 39 (3): 396-411. Macfarlane, B. 2017. “‘If not now, then when? If not us, who?’: Understanding the Student Protest Movement in Hong Kong.” In: Brooks, R. eds. Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives. London, Routledge. Sukarieh, M. and Tannock, S. 2015. Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy. London: Routledge. Uzun, B. 2016. “Student Mobilisation During Turkey’s Gezi Resistance: From the Politics of Change to the Politics of Lifestyle.” In: Brooks, R. eds. Student Politics and Protest: International Perspectives. London: Routledge.
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