Historically, the development of student movements has been heavily linked with nationalism, anti-colonialism, modernity, and the development of the welfare state (i.e. they were pro all four of those). However, as higher education has become massified around the world, students have by and large become less concerned with larger social issues, and more concerned with narrower, student-based concerns. That hasn’t always led to a loss of radicalism (viz. the carré rouge), but it’s broadly true that over time student leadership has become increasingly demure.
Arguably, this trend actually began in Canada. The Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and Canadian Alliance of Student Associations – both formed in the early/mid-90s – were possibly the first student groups anywhere in the world that viewed themselves as interest groups rather than “movements”. This is an important distinction: interest groups are prepared to act as insiders in order to gain benefits for their members, while movements resist working with insiders for fear of losing “purity”.
But I would argue there are a couple of other student organizations that have taken things considerably further. The first is the European Students’ Union (ESU), which is a federation of various national unions. Their focus is to lobby Brussels, which might sound like a pretty easy job since education policy is still mostly decided in individual countries (though of course our own Canadian Federation of Students [CFS] has managed to lobby Ottawa on tuition for 35 years without realizing fees are under provincial jurisdiction). But by adjusting its work to mirror the rather technocratic work done by the European Commission, the ESU has turned into one of the nerdiest and best-spoken student groups in the world.
Want proof? ESU talks intelligibly (arguably more so than some national governments) about quality assurance and the role of students in ensuring it (do take a look at their series of publications on the subject). It also has done a lot of work looking at graduate employability and how to improve it. This is really good stuff.
But the UK’s National Union of Students has perhaps gone even further in that it seems to have made a strategic decision to become partners with institutions, so as to drive improvements in student experience. It co-sponsors the National Student Survey (which is kind of a cross between NSSE and the old Globe and Mail) and the Student Engagement Partnership, which acts as a resource for institutional practitioners across the country. It creates a set of tools for individual member institutions to help students benchmark and improve teaching quality at institutions. And while I can understand people being upset that NUS has chosen to focus on this stuff rather than lead a fire-and-brimstone attack on the Tory government for fee hikes, the fact remains: this is a really impressive contribution to improving educational quality and the student experience.
Could these kinds of innovations happen here? I’d say it’s a pretty solid no on the CFS side, where this stuff would look too much like giving in to The Man. For the non-CASA schools, it’s possible, though unlikely. Organizations like OUSA and CASA are, for the moment, quite focused on lobbying government on financial issues rather than dealing with institutions. The real innovator lately has been Students NS, whose members have launched an independent governance review of… themselves. More self-centred than the UK and European initiatives, perhaps, but still a novel and welcome step to protect students’ interests.