Prominent student activists from India, South Africa and Ukraine explained their motivations for change to a room full of education leaders today at Going Global, the British Council’s annual conference for leaders of international education.
Universities may be described as safe spaces of critical thought and social conscience where students and academics can question and contest the norms, cultures and challenges of their societies – but this notion was rejected by Kealeboga Mase Ramaru, a South African graduate and equal education activist, who stated that “There’s only academic freedom when there’s certain types of knowledge in the university.”
Discussing the recent Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall campaigns that have taken place in South Africa, Ramaru said that “We cannot just be in institutions that protect a certain minority, especially in an African context.”
“What we saw last year was that no one was really listening to the students. Last year we had students creating a new path of change in their universities, and actively so. There was a time when we were willing to come to the table but it was never open for us. So we need to do it ourselves, and be credited for it.”
“It’s not enough to take down a painting and still exclude students.” Ramaru said.
Olena Rusnak, Head of Secretariat, Ukrainian Association of Student Self-Government, discussed the role of Ukrainian students in the rapid changes that their country has experienced since the winter of 2013.
“The massive national protest only started after students were dispersed by the police because they came together to show they didn’t agree with the decisions of the government. 80 students were injured. After that, Ukrainian people realised that our government didn’t listen to people.” Rusnak said.
“After the students were dispersed, our society shifted its emphasis to revolution, to protest against the Government and the State authorities. Prior to the revolution students were not allowed to protest due to threats from officials.”
Rusnak explained that “In 2014, students decided to come to the Ministry, we entered the Ministry, and we stayed there. We worked out the roadmap; that we wouldn’t leave until the new Minister would come and agree to all of our points in our roadmap.”
“This is the story of how students can influence decision- making if we’re not included in the decision-making process. I’m not proud that we were forced to use these kinds of methods to make our voice heard. We want students to be a competent and equal partner in the process, not a destructive member of society. Now our main task as student leaders is to show that our voice is a voice to be heard, we have to move forward” Rusnak said.
Sanjana Krishnan, a PhD Student from the University of Hyderabad, India, responded to the view from a delegate that student movements were ineffective in delivering change beyond the campus environment. Krishnan told the education leaders from around the world that they too had a positive role to play in student activism “A professor told me once that rule breaking and protest is an essential role of students, part of growing up, and finding what the rules are.”
“Student movements need to have a clearer vision; we need to step back and work out where we went wrong. It’s important that strong public attention is there, we can’t just be five-10 people protesting on the streets. So we begin with a lot of euphoria as students and positive energy to bring about change. What happens eventually with student movements is that we end up largely with disappointment when we don’t achieve our aims. The role of university administration is to listen to us and engage with us before we can move forwards” Krishnan said.