From Student Unions to Trade Unions: Campus-Based Activism and Beyond

From Student Unions to Trade Unions: Campus-Based Activism and Beyond

Histories of Activism Research Group, Northumbria University
United Kingdom
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
12.01.2023 - 13.01.2023
Rory Hanna, Department of History, University of Sheffield

Emerging scholarship on student activism was showcased across two days at Northumbria University and during an additional day of online presentations. While most attendees were historians, contributions by political scientists, area studies specialists, and civil society actors made for rich interdisciplinary discussions on student activists’ self-perceptions and the factors behind their campaigns’ successes and failures. Around one third of the papers focused on examples from the United Kingdom, but speakers also presented case studies from continental Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.

In his opening remarks, conference organiser DANIEL LAQUA (Newcastle) noted that student activists may either concentrate on mobilising their peers on campus, or seek also to collaborate with wider social movements. Several papers at the conference illustrated that student-led campaigns have often been at their most effective when drawing upon outside support, rather than relying solely on students’ own limited resources.

Constraints on time and funding, as well as student activists’ desire for autonomy and their transitory presence within universities, frequently result in source material being insufficiently collected and catalogued. GEORGINA BREWIS (London) explained how a newly-launched survey of record-keeping practices in British student unions aims to address this issue. The survey, designed by historians in the field and their colleagues at the UK’s National Archives, seeks to identify existing source collections and explore how student unions could benefit from professional archivists’ assistance.

EDWARD ANDERSON (Newcastle) highlighted a case of student activism which left only transient traces. His paper chronicled attempts by Indian students in 1940s Newcastle to pay tribute to Charles Freer Andrews, a locally-born social reformer revered in India. The students had a plaque erected at Andrews’ birthplace and founded a library named in his honour. However, Newcastle’s City Library soon absorbed their book collection, and the plaque disappeared when Andrews’ house was demolished in 1961. Anderson has recently located several of the volumes which comprised the Andrews Library, and is campaigning for a new plaque to give the efforts of the Indian Students’ Association a lasting legacy.

JODI BURKETT (Portsmouth) underlined the agency of international students in another context: as interpreters and translators who assisted compatriots living in the UK. Burkett’s findings from records at Sheffield University identify the early 1970s as a turning point in student activists’ provision of language services. Following the election of a Conversative government with more restrictive migration policies, students’ emphasis shifted from serving the “state” to helping the “community”, through activities such as aiding foreign nationals with electoral registration.

The next speakers likewise examined heightened activism during the “long 1970s”. FREDERICK COOMBES (Leeds) explored student protests against Senegal’s president Léopold Senghor during the 1966 World Festival of Black Arts in Dakar. State security forces largely thwarted students’ attempts to subvert what they regarded as a dictator’s exercise in whitewashing. Nevertheless, Senghor’s eagerness to maintain his international reputation as an intellectual afforded students a degree of access to the Festival, which contrasted with the regime’s forced relocation of Dakar’s homeless population.

CHRIS PERKINS (Edinburgh) described various strategies of communication which accompanied the trials of Japanese left-wing student protesters in 1969. During their detention, accused students wrote vivid letters which reveal how they associated writing with resistance and self-discovery. Such expressiveness did not extend to their approach towards state officials, to whom they mostly refused to talk. Government authorities, thus deprived of direct communication with the activists, instead exhorted parents to engage in dialogue with their wayward offspring in order to bring them to reason.

In a paper on student activism in Northern Ireland, SARAH CAMPBELL (Newcastle) challenged the notion that the “long 1970s” were characterised by sustained political activity. After 1972, campus interventions in political matters declined despite ongoing violence during the Troubles. This changed in 1980, when students held referenda on whether individuals detained for paramilitary connections should be treated as political prisoners or as common criminals. Campbell identified demographic changes as a factor behind the renewed activism, as Catholic students became as numerous as Protestants at Northern Irish universities.

RORY HANNA (Sheffield) began the conference’s second day with an analysis of West German students’ responses to activism by Afro-Asian peers between 1956 and 1962. Racial prejudices, differing political views, and disagreements on acceptable forms of protest initially hindered collaboration between the two groups. Relations began to improve as street demonstrations became more normalised in post-war Germany and new halls of residence fostered intercultural contact. From 1960, Afro-Asian students’ campaigns against Western neo-colonialism and state repression in Iran proved more popular with West German counterparts than earlier pan-Arab and anti-Zionist activities.

EMILY SHARP (Newcastle) explained how campus events organised by foreign students at UK universities during the 1970s and 1980s raised awareness among their British peers of issues abroad. Anti-apartheid activism, protests against Chile’s Pinochet regime, and pro-Palestinian engagement became common forms of internationalism. Sharp questioned, however, whether the oft-used term “solidarity” adequately describes instances of British students exhibiting rather short-term or casual interest in such causes.

ANNE HEFFERNAN (Durham) shed light on student politics in South Africa during the transition from apartheid to democracy. Heffernan’s presentation, like that of Sarah Campbell, showed that times of momentous change do not necessarily produce strong student movements. The political state of flux in the 1990s had divisive effects on youth activism, as two organisations affiliated to the African National Congress – the ANC Youth League and the South African Students Congress – competed for members and influence.

The next panel profiled young people outside of conventional university settings. GEORGE BODIE (London) examined how African students at the GDR’s College of German Trade Unions reacted to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. East German functionaries sought to inculcate Soviet doctrine in aspiring labour officials from the decolonising world, but the Sino-Soviet split frustrated this endeavour. The college’s African cohort, which had surprisingly easy access to Chinese literature, blamed the tensions over Cuba on Khrushchev’s allegedly futile policy of peaceful co-existence. LAURA TISDALL (Newcastle) charted the activities of the UK’s National Union of School Students (NUSS), which lasted from 1972 until 1980. Rather than seeking to emulate adult protesters, NUSS members emphasised their youth, for example by using informal slang in their campaign against corporal punishment. As Tisdall pointed out, their activism prompts us to consider how far other forms of deviance by school pupils, such as truancy, could be conceived as acts of protest.

Two subsequent talks illustrated how student activists have recently collaborated with non-students. JEAN-THOMAS MARTELLI (Leiden) analysed protests in India against the Modi government’s 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which excluded Muslims from a new naturalisation process available to persecuted religious minorities from neighbouring countries. As Muslim students mobilised other citizens against the law, the term “Islamophobia” gained currency in India for the first time. HEATHER MCKNIGHT (Brighton) looked at innovations in activism at Sussex University. In 2013, lecturers and students formed a “Pop-Up Union” to stop the university outsourcing campus jobs. The union was prevented on legal grounds from balloting for strike action, but concessions made by the university suggest that new forms of staff-student co-operation offer potential success.

ANDREEA DAHLQUIST (Târgoviște) and BOGDAN-ALEXANDRU SCHIPOR (Iași) reminded attendees that students have not always served progressive causes. Their paper chronicled various antisemitic activities, including campaigns for segregation in lecture halls, which Romanian and Polish student organisations carried out in the interwar years. Participants such as Corneliu Codreanu, who co-founded Romania’s Association of Christian Students in 1922, later became key fascist leaders.

Student activists’ subsequent trajectories were also thematised by DAN HODGKINSON (Oxford), who compared two prominent Zimbabwean politicians: Munyaradzi Gwisai and Tendai Biti. As socialist student officials, Gwisai and Biti protested in the late 1980s against Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party. While Gwisai has retained his left-wing politics, Biti now advocates neoliberal economic reforms. Nonetheless, both men, when interviewed by Hodgkinson, cited their activities as students to underline their credentials as long-standing critics of the ZANU-PF regime.

Activists’ self-perceptions remained in focus as SAFIA DAHANI (Paris) presented findings from her interviews with current and former students of France’s Fédération des associations générales étudiantes, or FAGE. Created in 1989, the FAGE trains members in administrative and negotiation skills, and has become more popular in French student politics than UNEF, its older, left-wing rival. According to Dahani, FAGE activists view themselves as “non-political” advocates of student interests, and their claim to pragmatism has found favour with Emmanuel Macron’s centrist government.

The conference’s final day revisited French student activism as ANTONIN DUBOIS (Paris / Besançon) surveyed students’ debates on trade unionism between 1900 and 1946. Although some corporative associations of students established connections with professional unions, overall contact with the labour movement remained limited, and no student bodies took on the legal status of a union. It was not until the idea of corporatism had become tarnished through its association with the Vichy regime that students formally unionised as members of UNEF.

The theme of activism in schools re-emerged as GIUSEPPE LIPARI (Florence) discussed the 2014/15 mobilisations in Italy against a school reforms bill. The law’s opponents alleged a drive towards neoliberalism, and action by secondary school pupils and workers culminated in nationwide strikes. Although the protesters failed to prevent the bill’s passage, legacies of the campaign are visible in school pupil activists’ continued use of social media and their dialogue with trade unions.

Alliances between different activist groups are not always easy to sustain, as an investigation into student debt in New Zealand since the 1980s has highlighted. ELLEN DIXON (Wellington), GWEN PALMER STEEDS (Wellington) and JACQUELINE WATT (Palmerston North) showed that, in the years before 2011, student demonstrations against tuition fees were joined by organisations such as Grey Power, an activist group for people over fifty. More recently, however, solidarity from non-students has declined, as widespread economic hardship has fed the perception of students as a privileged elite.

SARAH CROOK (Swansea) shed light on the achievements of British students’ mental health activism in the 1960s and 1970s. Nightline, a well-established nationwide telephone support service for students, is commonly believed to have been founded by staff members at Essex University in 1970, but the initiative in fact came from three female students. The role of gender in student activism remained somewhat unexplored during the conference, but Crook’s research suggests that women may have been particularly prominent in mental health campaigning.

The next papers offered further insights into students’ agency in times of political upheaval and uncertainty. MIROSLAV VAŠÍK (Prague) explained how two Czech brothers informed their home village of developments in Prague during the 1848 Revolution. The siblings’ letters to their parents were shared widely, with the village’s mayor among the readers. ANA-MARIA STAN (Cluj-Napoca) profiled Romanian, Czechoslovak and Yugoslav students’ efforts to bolster their countries’ interwar alliance. From 1929, the Petite Entente des Étudiants established various channels of co-operation and published literature abroad to counter Hungarian propaganda aimed at border revision.

NIKHIL TIWARI (New Delhi) examined students’ role in Taiwan’s transition to democracy. A mass movement in 1990 led to the introduction of an elected legislature and amendments to the country’s authoritarian constitution. Students’ centrality in the protests marked a break with previous decades, when they had tended to support dissident activity led by professors and intellectuals.

Throughout the conference, speakers offered refreshingly expansive perspectives on students’ political engagement, which ranged from letter-writing to language assistance. A new, special edition of the journal Social History, dedicated to youth internationalism and its oscillations between overcoming and reinforcing power asymmetries, has cast a similarly wide net on diverse forms of activism.1 At the end of the conference, the issue – which features seven articles drawing on case studies from across the globe – was introduced by co-editors DANIEL LAQUA (Newcastle) and NIKOLAOS PAPADOGIANNIS (Stirling).

Both the conference and the journal issue have foregrounded new trends in scholarly research. Just as importantly, they have highlighted the need for increased attention to gender, religion, and other hitherto overlooked dynamics of student activism within and beyond university campuses.

Conference overview:

Welcome session

Daniel Laqua (Newcastle): Introduction

Georgina Brewis (London): New Research into Archiving and Record Keeping Practices in UK Student Unions

Panel 1: International Students
Chair: Emily Sharp (Newcastle)

Edward Anderson (Newcastle): Anti-Imperialism, Student Politics, and Memorialisation: Indian Students in Newcastle at the Twilight of the British Empire

Jodi Burkett (Portsmouth): In Service of the Community or the State? Overseas Students and Language Provision

Panel 2: Protest in the ‘Long 1970s’
Chair: Sam Blaxland (London)

Frederick Coombes (Leeds): ‘I Was Really Privileged’: The Ambiguities of Protest in the Face of Repression, Deportation and Incarceration around l’Université de Dakar, 1966–1973

Chris Perkins (Edinburgh): Japan’s 1968 on Trial

Sarah Campbell (Newcastle): ‘The Lines Have Been Drawn’: The H-Block Protest and Student Activism in Northern Ireland, 1977–1981

Panel 3: Confronting Political Change
Chair: Charlotte Alston (Newcastle)

Rory Hanna (Sheffield): Between Solidarity and Scepticism: West German Students and Afro-Asian Activism, 1956–1962

Emily Sharp (Newcastle): British Students and the Practice of Solidarity in the 1970s and 1980s

Anne Heffernan (Durham): Students in (the) Transition: How Student Movements Navigated South Africa’s Political Transition into the Post-Apartheid Era

Panel 4: Beyond University Students
Chair: Georgina Brewis (London)

George Bodie (London): ‘A Terrible Blow to All National Liberation Movements’: The Cuban Missile Crisis through the Eyes of African Trade Unionist-Students in Berlin, 1962

Laura Tisdall (Newcastle): The National Union of School Students (NUSS) and Age-Based Activism in Cold War Britain

Panel 5: Protest and Subversion Today
Chair: Linsey Robb (Newcastle)

Jean-Thomas Martelli (Leiden): Can the Popular Disembody Populism? Students and the Re-appropriation of the Nationalist Floating Signifier in Contemporary Indian Politics

Heather McKnight (Brighton): Reimagining the University through Resistance: The Prefigurative Possibilities of Joint Working, Protest and Academic Freedom

Panel 6: Personal and Political Trajectories
Chair: James Koranyi (Durham)

Andreea Dahlquist (Târgoviște) / Bogdan-Alexandru Schipor (Iași): Fascist Activism in the Interwar Years: From Student Movement to Political Militantism in the Shadow of the Romanian-Polish Alliance

Dan Hodgkinson (Oxford): Living with Ruins: Past Dreams and Their Personal Effects at the End of the Cold War in Zimbabwe

Safia Dahani (Paris): A New Branch of Political Recruitment? The Recent Conversion of FAGE Leaders in the French Political Field

Daniel Laqua (Newcastle): Closing words

Online Panel 1: Students and Social Movements

Opening remarks / Reflections on in-person events

Antonin Dubois (Paris / Besançon): Should Students Unionise? Debates on Trade-Unionism among French Students, 1900–1946

Giuseppe Lipari (Florence): School Student Unions and Trade Unions in the Mobilisations of 2014–2015 in Italy

Online Panel 2: Student Lives

Ellen R. Dixon (Wellington) / Jacqueline Watt (Palmerston North) / Gwen Palmer Steeds (Wellington): In-Debted Lives: The Political Ecology of the Campaigns Against Student Debt in Aotearoa New Zealand

Sarah Crook (Swansea): Building the Healthy Campus: Students and Mental Health Activism in 1960s and 1970s Britain

Discussant: Heather Ellis (Sheffield)

Online Panel 3: Students and (Inter-)National Politics

Miroslav Vašík (Prague): Czech Students in the 1848 Revolution: Connecting Prague and the Countryside?

Ana-Maria Stan (Cluj-Napoca): La Petite Entente des Étudiants: An Example of Student Activism and Student Diplomacy in Interwar Eastern Europe

Nikhil Tiwari (New Delhi): Inquiry into the Role of Student Movements in Taiwan’s Democratisation and Democratic Consolidation

Discussant: Ljubica Spaskovska (Exeter)

Launch Event

Daniel Laqua (Newcastle) / Nikolaos Papadogiannis (Stirling): Youth and Internationalism in the Twentieth Century: Special Journal Issue of Social History

1Social History 48:1 (2023), accessible via the following link: (02.05.2023).