The recent demonstrations across the world in response to the brutal death of George Floyd and in support of the Black Lives Matter campaign have shown that political activity is not necessarily dampened by COVID-19 social distancing measures.
They have also indicated that, as with other recent political protests, students are often closely involved in such action.
Nevertheless, despite the apparent global reach of such campaigns, there has been relatively little work on the extent to which the political participation of students varies between countries. It is often the case that research is conducted in one country (typically an Anglophone nation of the Global North) and then generalised to other parts of the world.
To begin to address this gap, we draw on interviews with higher education staff and policy-makers, and focus groups with students, across Europe to explore the extent to which these different stakeholders view students as important political actors.
We collected data in Denmark, England, Germany, Ireland, Poland and Spain – chosen to provide diversity with respect to: welfare regime; mechanisms for funding higher education and supporting students; and relationship to the European Union (see here for further details).
Beliefs about student apathy endure
A marked divide was evident across Europe between the perspectives of higher education staff and policy-makers, on the one hand, and students, on the other.
In many cases, a clear contrast can be drawn between the relatively pessimistic perspectives of policy-makers and those working in higher education, who both tended to believe that contemporary students are much less politically engaged than their predecessors – because of the absence of any strong and coherent ‘student movement’ – and students themselves who articulated a strong interest in a wide range of political issues.
Students saw university as a particularly conducive space for developing their knowledge and skills, which they believed would better equip them for political engagement.
This contrast between the views of students and other key stakeholders suggests that, despite a now significant body of work demonstrating that young people are both interested in politics and politically engaged, beliefs about youth apathy endure.
This is particularly problematic given that the stakeholders we interviewed constitute a group that has significant influence over students – either through day-to-day contact within spaces of learning (in the case of staff) or through the formulation of higher education policy (with respect to policy-makers).
Indeed, perhaps reflective of this tension, our data also indicate that, across our six countries, students believed that their political efficacy was constrained – by politicians and also other social actors who tended to ignore them, infantilise them and-or take other steps to lessen their impact.
Variation between nations
While the views above were reasonably common across all our six countries, there were some important differences in perspective between nations.
For example, Danish students tended to place more importance on being politically engaged, and were more confident that they were being listened to, than many of the students in the other five nations.
This is likely to be linked to the well-established nature of Danish students’ unions, their history of student involvement in decision-making and the relative success of the Danish student movement in resisting pressures to become merely the voice of student-consumers.
In contrast, Polish students were much more likely than their peers elsewhere to believe that political activity was not a key part of being a student – a view that one of our interviewees (a leader from the national Polish Students’ Parliament) explained in terms of the country’s communist legacy.
Under communism, he asserted, students had made a clear separation between education-related issues, which were deemed to constitute a legitimate focus for student activity, and issues with provenance beyond the university walls, which were not.
He explained: “One of the main ideas [in the communist period, which has endured] was to [focus] on the university and don’t be political … this was the way that they avoided political problems.”
In Ireland, two high-profile national debates (about same-sex marriage and reform of the abortion law) appeared to have energised students and encouraged their involvement in campaigns beyond the educational sphere.
Such evidence suggests that it is important to remain sensitive to the particular social, political and economic contexts in which students are operating – which may shift quite considerably over time.
Listen to students
As noted above, much of the research on students’ political activity is often based on data collected in one nation state but tends to be generalised to students in general. The differences, by country, highlighted here demonstrate some of the limitations of this approach.
They also suggest that, despite a European Higher Education Area having been in place for a decade, the meaning attached to being a student in Europe today seems – with respect to political involvement at least – to be somewhat differentiated.
Nevertheless, the commonalities outlined above are important. On the whole, our focus group participants across Europe had a high level of interest in political matters and believed they had the potential to be significant political actors.
It thus appears imperative for those exerting social power and influence (including higher education staff and policy-makers) to find ways to overcome the constraints felt by many of the participants and facilitate more fully their political engagement.
Rachel Brooks is professor of higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, United Kingdom. This blog is based on a recently published article in the British Educational Research Journal. I would like to thank the European Research Council for funding the research upon which the blog is based, through a Consolidator Grant (reference: 681018_EUROSTUDENTS).