Student Politics in the Third World

Student Politics in the Third World Author(s): Philip G. Altbach Source: Higher Education, Vol. 13, No. 6 (Dec. , 1984), pp. 635-655 Published by: Springer Stable URL: http://www. jstor. org/stable/3446867 Accessed: 26/03/2009 11:04 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of JSTOR’s Terms and Conditions of Use, available at http://www. jstor. org/page/info/about/policies/terms. jsp.

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ALTBACH Comparative Education Center, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York, U. S. A. ABSTRACT Student political activism remains a key issue in the Third World despite its decline in the industrialized nations. Students continue to be active in politics and frequently have an impact on societal events. The historical development of student politics and student involvement in independence struggles, the role of students as incipient elites, and the fragility of the political structures of many Third World nations all contribute to the efficacy of student politics.

Universities, as key intellectual institutions in their societies, also play an important role in Third World societies. Students, especially those in the social sciences, are fairly easy to mobilize and they often have a basic interest in political and social issues. It is argued that student movements emerge from their social and political environment and it is not surprising that activism continues as a powerful force in the Third World. Introduction Student political activism remains a key issue for Third World universities – and frequently for political systems as well [1].

Students continue to be politically active and involved, and on occasion contribute to political unrest. There are considerable national variations and the scope and pace of student politics changes over time and across national boundaries. But the issue remains one of the most important for higher education administrators, planners and for government officials. In the 1980s, the contrast between continued political activism among students in the Third World and relative quiet in the industrialized nations of Western Europe and North America is dramatic.

This article considers some of the reasons for this contrast as well as the key factors relating to student activism in the Third World, a complex phenomenon which has implications for both university and society. Student politics is generally viewed by those in authority as a negative factor 0018-1560/84/$03. 00? 1984 ElsevierS cienceP ublishers B. V. 636 – something to be eliminated from academic life. Indeed, student politics some-times affects higher education and on occasions sweeps beyond the campus to have disruptive implications for the political system.

It is, however, not enough to condemn student politics as a negative force. It is necessary to understand the forces that impel student activism and to examine the results of this activism. Furthermore, in some respects, student political involvement can contribute to the processes of nation building and political socialization. Without any ques-tion, student activism contributes to social change in the Third World and focuses national attention on political and social questions that might otherwise be ignored by the political system.

There are quite considerable differences in student political activism among countries, regions and by historical periods. The most dramatic difference at present is between the industrialized nations and the Third World. But there are differences among Third World nations as well. In India, much student activism tends to focus on campus-based issues which are sometimes linked to broader political and ideological questions. Typically, however, student activism is moti-vated by political and social forces in society and its attention is generally focused away from the campus.

Nations with a strong tradition of student activism, often stemming from student participation in independence struggles, tend to have active student movements. National policies concerning activism also have an effect on the viability and often the tactics of student movements. Political systems that permit the relatively free functioning of social organizations and movements will tend to have more active student participation, but such activism is less often revolutionary in nature. Social and economic conditions also affect student political movements and organizations.

Poor campus conditions, as in India, have stimulated activism and protest. On the other hand, an “elite” campus environment can also contribute to student political consciousness. Variations by academic field and discipline can also be noted, with students in the social sciences and humanities in most countries more involved in political activities than those in the natural sciences and professional fields. The variables are substantial and it is not surprising that there is no widely accepted theoretical perspective concerning student activism.

The purpose of this article is not to create such a formulation, but rather it is to reflect on the experiences of Third World nations. This is particularly important since most of the theories relating to student politics refer mainly to the experience of the industrialized nations [2]. National variations, historical differences, changing political environments, academic organizational variations and many other factors all relate to an understanding of student politics in any one nation. It is too much to expect that a readily applicable general formulation will be able to completely explain this complex phenomenon.

The literature on student activism is a curious blend of the descriptive and the theoretical. There was a massive outpouring of publication during the 1960s, 637 when Western nations were disrupted by student activist movements. Since then, there has not been much discussion of the topic in Western academic circles. Much of the literature reflects the concerns of Western social scientists and university officials – impelled in considerable part by a desire to understand and to “deal with” activist movements which arose suddenly. The paradigms used were largely Western in orientation.

The political models reflected the realities of North American and Western European situation. This literature is not neces-sarily directly relevant to the Third World. While academic institutions stem from similar roots, Third World realities differ significantly from those in the Western democracies. Further, the cyclical pattern so evident in the West is not necessarily the case in the Third World. In most Third World nations, there was no dramatic upsurge during the 1960s (although the international current did have some impact virtually everywhere), and no dramatic decline in the mid- 1970s.

There are national variations in the scope and timing of student activism in the Third World, but these are based more on national developments than on international currents. In many respects, the Western “bias” of the literature has distorted analyses of student politics in the Third World. While it is possible to utilize conceptual frameworks from the Western literature and even some of the general research trends, it is necessary to look at Third World student activism as a relatively independent phenomenon.

The Political Framework Universities do not function in a vacuum, and they are especially related to and dependent on their societies in the Third World. Students are also attuned to societal developments, and student political activism in most Third World countries is directly related to broader political forces and trends. It is rare for a student movement to be fully campus-based and concerned mainly with univer-sity issues. There are many reasons for this close relationship between students and the political system.

Third World political systems are typically less “dense” than those in the industrialized nations. There are fewer competing political forces and this per-mits students to play a more direct and powerful role. The mass media are weaker, parliamentary systems are often ineffective or nonexistent, trade unions, consumer groups and the myriad of interest groups typically found in the Western industrial nations are missing, and the educated middle class is small. University students, as one of the few easily mobilized and politically articulate groups in society, play a crucial role in politics.

It has often been said that student movements constitute something of a “conscience” for their societies, as they often embody the concerns of broader segments of the population who are unable to voice their discontent. 638 Students are a uniquely mobilizable group in the Third World. In many countries, the major university is located in the capital city, often a short distance from the seat of political power. Students have a geographical focus on the campus and generally have their own newspapers and journals.

Politics impinge on the lives of students in many ways more directly than is the case in the industrialized nations. The decisions of government have an immediate effect on the direction of the economy, including employment prospects for graduates in countries where a very large proportion of the graduates go into the civil service or other government employment. Students take politics very seriously, in part because it affects them and the university very directly and in part because they have, in many nations, a consciousness of their unique role in society.

Students see themselves as a kind of”incipient elite” destined for power and responsible for exercising their political power even while students (Hanna and Hanna, 1975). While there are a number of Third World nations which have exhibited considerable political stability (Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Paraguay, Taiwan and Malaysia are a few examples), in general politics are less stable than in most industrialized nations, and political issues are both perplexing and controversial. Students, as one of the main articulate and politically aware groups in society, naturally concern themselves with these issues.

The basic political fabric of society can be torn apart by disputes concerning language policy, social reform or other matters. Many Third World societies are multi-ethnic, and this presents further possibilities for unrest and contestation. Many of these pressing societal questions directly affect the student population. Language policy, for example, often has implications for the medium of instruction in the educational system. Variations in the treatment of ethnic groups also affect student populations.

Students are often more ideologically aware and oriented than the population generally. Ideological interests come from a variety of sources, including the nature of university education and the psychological propensities of students (Keniston, 1971; Klineberg, 1979). The ideological orientation of student groups, often but by no means exclusively on the left, has broad political implications. The reaction of the political system to student activist movements helps to shape their actions, orientations and, of course, the impact they have on society.

Many Third World political systems are relatively intolerant of political activ-ism, fearing that the students may generate political instability or cause disrup-tion. A growing number of countries have sought to ensure, by a variety of policies, that the universities will be relatively free of political activism. In some countries, a “certificate of suitability,” which is aimed mainly at checking for political dissidents, is required for anyone wishing to attend university. Nations as different ideologically as China and Singapore use this means of controlling dissent.

Those denied such certification may not enroll in post-secondary educa- 639 tional institutions. Legislation concerning the operation of universities has sometimes included restrictions on political expression on campus by both students and academic staff. The traditional concept of university autonomy has, as a result, been weakened (McConnell, 1981). In many Third World nations, campus unrest is dealt with harshly by political authorities, with repres-sion of organizations, jailing of student leaders and severe limitations on free-dom of movement imposed on activist organizations.

The traditional insulation of the university campus from external interference, honored most strongly in Latin America, has lost its force in most countries and police or military authorities are willing to come onto the campus to deal with unrest or perceived disruption (Walter, 1968; Maier and Weatherhead, 1979). Malaysia’s recent University Act, which was stimulated by student unrest and widespread rioting in 1969, severely limits university autonomy.

Restrictions in many other coun-tries, including Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, South Korea and the Philip-pines, have limited the scope of student activism and indicate the concern political authorities have about the potential force of student activism. It would be tempting to develop or posit a hypothesis that the more democratic and civil libertarian a regime is in the Third World, the more likely it is to permit a fairly high level of activism. In general, this seems to be the case, although political currents change so rapidly that activism can become a risky business very quickly.

It is perhaps significant that in those countries where activism is most widely permitted, it generally has the least impact on the political structure, precisely because there are other competing political forces at work as well. Governments consider students a potentially powerful political force and have in many instances moved to ensure that activism does not become a political threat. Despite these efforts, students have been influential in politics and efforts at repression have not been completely successful.

The fact is, however, that student activism is more difficult when restrictions are placed on it by external authorities, although governments have been unable to completely eliminate activism. Given a sufficiently severe social crisis and strong student opinion and a desire to participate, activism cannot be completely repressed without disrupting the academic system and closing the universities. Where governments have felt themselves sufficiently threatened, universities have in-deed been closed and in some cases entire student populations dismissed.

Even such dramatic action has sometimes failed to quell student activism. Without question, in the Third World, students are a key political force – one which is reckoned with by governments. Students are not necessarily involved in all political struggles, but when they become mobilized, they are a powerful force. 640 The Academic Environment Students live and work in academic institutions and the environment, curriculum, and policies of the university have an important effect on student activism.

Although, as has been noted, students are generally concerned about societal politics, the institutional milieu does play a significant role. It is neces-sary to understand the nature of the university and its culture to fully compre-hend student politics. Universities are unique institutions in many ways. They have a degree of autonomy rare among large social institutions and even if this autonomy has been under attack in recent years, it is nevertheless important. The educational culture of the university is important also. The process of learning and the nature of the curriculum can contribute to political consciousness.

For students in the social sciences particularly, the study of social forces contributes to understanding, and sometimes to criticism of, established institutions and policies. Universities have unique cultures, histories and practices that contribute to student political consciousness and concern (van den Berghe, 1973; Altbach, 1972). Universities are meritocratic institutions and emphasize promotion and advancement by merit alone. This concept is often in contrast to more traditional practices in Third World societies, where family, ethnic group or tribe is more important.

The meritocratic ideal is part of an academic value system often at odds with traditional norms and values and helps to engender an oppositional culture among students. The university as a community also has political implications. In the Third World, independent and autonomous groups of young people are unusual and the subculture in the university is perhaps unique. The freedom that university students have from their families is a significant experience as well. Further, in many countries, the subculture of the university (and of intellectuals generally)

is frequently an “oppositional” subculture, which examines carefully and critically the society of which it is a part (Shils, 1972). The professoriate often adds to the sense of intellectual ferment by encouraging students to ask difficult questions and, in some instances, by displaying oppositional political and social views. The campus community is more cosmopolitan than its surrounding society and inevitably comes into some conflict with it. While student populations tend to come from relatively privileged strata of the population, they have relatively greater opportunities to interact with compeers from different social strata.

Traditional barriers of caste, ethnicity, tribe and religion seem less important in the meritocratic atmosphere of the university [3]. The ethos of the university community tends to contribute to interest in social and political questions and to make it easier to express these interests and to organize for political discussion and action. The university, in almost all countries, is a more autonomous, independent 641 and more liberal environment than its surrounding society. The professoriate, while seldom revolutionary in its political orientation, tends to be somewhat to the left of the general population (Basu, 1981).

Even in countries where there are significant limitations on freedom of expression and action, the campus tends to be allowed a greater degree of freedom than the rest of the society. To some extent, political authorities recognize that a university requires a free environ-ment in order to provide quality education and research. Political authorities have always found it difficult to enforce total conformity in the universities. The example of China during the Cultural Revolution shows the results of totally eliminating dissent from the universities and harnessing academic institutions to meet the dictates of government.

Without question, the balance between the requirements of a quality educational institution on the one hand and the demands of government in many countries for political loyalty on the other is a delicate one. Student activism often is able to flourish in the confusing middle ground between freedom and conformity. Universities have some other special advantages in terms of stimulating student activism. Student newspapers are able to ensure that students are quickly informed of events and they are able to create an atmosphere that stimulates activism and political consciousness.

Universities in many Third World nations are located in the capital city and thus close to the seat of power. In this geographical environment, it is relatively easy to organize a demonstration which can be seen – and perhaps felt – at the seat of government. As universities have grown in size, it becomes easier to mobilize a large number of individuals on a variety of political issues. Even a small minority of ten percent of a student population of 10,000 is a large crowd of 1,000 students. While student demon-strations are almost everywhere minority phenomena, a fairly substantial group can be easily organized on a university campus.

The geographical factor in student activism is often ignored but is nonetheless important. In a few countries, campus issues and conditions stimulate student activism – and this activism sometimes spills from the campus to the society. The most dramatic example of campus-based activism is India, where poor and often deteriorating conditions, combined with an interest by external political groups in campus politics, often stimulate activism. The Indian case may be relevant to other countries if standards of education decline or unemployment of university graduates becomes endemic (Jayaram, 1979; Altbach, 1968).

In India, most activism in recent years has been campus-based and stimulated by local issues, often relating to examinations, complaints against administrators or faculty or other similar issues. Poor and deteriorating conditions in the hostels and a general feeling, supported by statistics, that graduates (except in a few fields) are in a difficult employment market are underlying factors. The unrest that emerges is often violent and disruptive of academic life. The University of Bombay, for example, reported recently that it was able to hold its annual 642 examinations on time for the first time in four years in 1983.

India’s most prestigious university, the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has been closed down on a number of occasions due to local campus disputes. Most recently, this university was closed for several months after rioting damaged several staff houses in reaction to a dispute relating to hostel regulations. In India, external political groups often attempt to gain support in the universities and often contribute to local, and largely nonideological, student unrest. The combination of a tradition of local student politics, external interests, and deteriorating conditions in the universities is a powerful one.

While India is almost unique in the scope and intensity of local student activism, campus conditions can contrib-ute to student activism and to a generalized feeling of disaffection among students throughout the Third World. The organization of studies has an impact on student activism. Academic systems which permit long periods of time between examinations, in which the examination system is centralized, and which leave students relatively un-supervised and without direct academic responsibilities, are more prone to student activism than more regulated academic systems.

Students in systems with relatively few requirements have more time to participate in political movements. The sense of constant responsibility for academic work is not strong and in general lectures and other assignments are not compulsory. In contrast, academic systems which are organized according to the American course-credit system, in which students are examined regularly by their teachers, seem to instill a greater sense of responsibility. Further, there is less time for extra-curricular activities of all kinds because of constant assessment of academic work.

There has been a trend in the Third World to shift to an academic organization that provides more supervision and continuing assessment. The academic environment is a complex one. It is based on traditional approaches to higher education, on patterns of administration, on sets of expectations for academic work, and on particular locations and cultures of academic institutions. These factors have a profound impact on the nature and orientation of student political activism. Perhaps the most important force, however, is the very nature of a university education.

An academic institution and all that it stands for is related to the examination of society and a desire to understand reality. It is not surprising, therefore, that university students some-times take their newly found understanding seriously and translate their knowl-edge into action. Historical Traditions Although universities stem from a common Western institution, nations have different academic histories. Historical circumstances and traditions have 643 quite a bit to do with the nature and scope of student activism in a national context.

Perhaps the most important general difference in this regard between the industrialized nations and the Third World is the role played by the academic community in general, and students particularly, in independence struggles in many Third World nations. This key political role has legitimated the participa-tion of students in national politics (Altbach, 1982). Because students participat-ed in the national struggles, they have achieved a place in history and their contemporary political role is considered legitimate. Governments have attempt-ed to lessen this legitimacy, but it remains a powerful force.

If students are somehow expected to play a political role, their actions and opinions carry a greater weight. In the Third World generally, students, as representatives of the middle classes, have been expected to play an active political role. In Latin America, there has been a powerful tradition of student activism that continues, with variations, to the present time. Stimulated by the famous reform movement of 1918, which transformed the Latin American university and placed students in the governance process, Latin American universities have long been sanctuaries for student radicalism.

The recent period has seen signifi-cant changes in Latin America. The rise of repressive military regimes with modern means of repression limited activism. Further, the traditionally militant public universities have to some extent been eclipsed by newer private and technological institutions which have little activist orientation. Very recently, there has been a trend toward democratization in Argentina, Brazil, and even in Chile, and it is possible that students will again move to the center stage of the political system.

Without question, the historical tradition of student activism in Latin America remains strong and students remain involved in university gov-ernance in a number of countries as well as in politics (Liebman, 1972). While Latin American higher education and politics have seen some important changes, the activist tradition remains and the legacy of the 1918 reforms is strong in the consciousness of both students and society. Students were active in independence struggles in a number of countries including India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Egypt, and many others.

In countries where students were active in such important points in national development, they have often maintained a sense of their political efficacy and there has been an acceptance of students as legitimate political actors, in part based on their involvement in the national struggle. With the exception of Latin America, there are no Third World nations with a tradition of student involvement in academic governance and in university reform movements. Student political participation has, in general, been on the national level and with ideologically-based political movements.

Students have historically been involved in cultural and linguistic reform movements, and have been important also in shaping the cultural traditions of the modern period. Students, for example, were at the forefront of the struggle to 644 use bahasa Indonesia as the Indonesian national language and they provided intellectual underpinnings to the national movement. Muslim students in India were active in the intellectual movement that led to the founding of Pakistan, and Indian students generally were involved at all stages of the nationalist movement (Lelyveld, 1978). Historically, the universities have been important places of cultural ferment and debate.

This is not surprising considering the small size of the intellectual class in most Third World nations prior to the growth of modern universities in the post-independence period. When the history of the growth of nationalism and of cultural ferment is written in many Third World nations, the academic community – both students and faculty – will emerge as an important force. This is true in many cases where students were not very active in the independence struggle as where political nationalist movements were active. In pre-revolutionary China, students played both a political and a cultural role of considerable importance.

The May 4, 1919 movement was spurred by stu-dents and marked the emergence of students as a significant political force (Chow, 1960). Students demanded radical solutions to the many problems facing China at the time and contributed to the intellectual and political ferment that culminated in the 1949 revolution that brought the Communists to power. In Burma, students were active in creating a nationalist movement in the 1920s and they remained politically involved until the military government put an end to all political activity in the 1960s (Silverstein, 1968).

This pattern was repeated in Vietnam and elsewhere. While there were a few international contacts among students in Third World countries during the colonial period, most of these movements emerged without significant international involvements [4]. Where there was contact, it was between the universities in the colonial center with students and intellectuals in the colonies. Historical traditions function in different ways in different countries. In some, there was direct student involvement in the independence struggle.

In others, students played an intellectual and cultural rather than a political role. In a few cases, there was student involvement in campus reforms, but this was not the general situation. And in some instances there was international ferment among students during the important period of colonial develo