Saturday, December 16, 2017

Why do university students go on strike?

Previously, I discussed the widespread phenomena in the Majority World of university students going on strike (boycotting classes). Here I address one question I raised there.
There is a range of contributing reasons why these strikes occur. I give the reasons in no particular order.

Frustrated aspirations.
Increased access to university education, means students may be the first in their family to attend university and they may have high hopes about what the experience will be and what it might lead to. However, in the Majority World, they usually encounter institutions which are extremely under-resourced. There are few books in the library, laboratory equipment does not work, lecturers do not show up for work, ....
And then government and university administrators want to increase tuition fees. These fees can be way beyond what students from poor families can afford.

How did it get this way?
Some African context is provided by Joel Carpenter and Nellie Kooistra in Engaging Africa, a report prepared for two philanthropic organisations.
By the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, ... African universities suffered deep financial cuts as many countries experienced a crash of commodity prices and the rapid increase of energy prices, resulting in crippling national debts and austerity budgets. World Bank and IMF restructuring programs advised debtor nations to reallocate education spending from higher education to primary and secondary education. Political instability added to the universities’ woes as African nations in the 1980s experienced twenty-one successful coups, and authoritarian regimes became the norm. Rulers suspected their flagship universities of being hotbeds of subversion and slashed their budgets further while building new regional universities to serve favored constituencies. At the same time, European and North American government aid for African universities, which had amounted to scores of millions of dollars over the years, was being sharply curtailed, and so were some major philanthropic efforts... 
These problems continued throughout the 1990s, and to compound them, the World Bank and IMF-predicated emphasis on supporting primary and secondary education was resulting in a surging demand for tertiary enrollments. Governments acceded to political pressure and crowded more students into the older universities....
... conditions proved to be intolerable for thousands of African academics and exacerbated the “brain drain” syndrome as the continent exported talent to wealthier nations. ... Faculty members frequently went on strike for higher wages, while students protested inadequate services. It was becoming clear that the old social contract in higher education—which African governments inherited from the European colonial nations—had broken down. No longer could governments afford to offer free tuitions and subsidies for room and board to all who qualified on their matriculation exams. And these problems were commonly aggravated by universities maintaining large and cumbersome non-academic staffs and infrastructure....
Students and universities are struggling to find a unique identity. There is conflict about what should be done with the legacy (whether statues (Rhodes must fall) or curriculum) of the colonial era of Western dominance.

Sometimes students are protesting about government corruption, as in recent strikes in Papua New Guinea. Other times it is about the corruption that may occur at many different levels within the university. It can range from administrators diverting operating funds to nepotism in hiring to staff taking bribes for admissions or grades.

Inability to resolve conflict.
Some of my friends suggest that conflicts can quickly escalate into strikes due to the emotional immaturity of some students, particularly those from dysfunctional families or from communities in which there are high levels of conflict.

Political opportunism.
Although they may not want to publically admit it, there are outside power brokers who can actually gain from student strikes, and so they may want to prod them along, and even have them escalate to violence. On the left, student protests sometimes bring down governments. On the right, governments can crack down on protests and tap into voter resentment towards students and concerns about public "safety".
You can see this resentment by reading the comments on news stories about student strikes.

For example, Ronald Reagan successfully launched his political career using student protests at UC Berkeley campus as a target.
Smelser, assistant chancellor ... at the time Reagan ran for [Governor of California], recalled that "Reagan took aim at the university for being irresponsible for failing to punish these dissident students. He said, 'Get them out of there. Throw them out. They are spoiled and don't deserve the education they are getting. They don't have a right to take advantage of our system of education.'"
On the student side, many political careers (particularly on the left) have been launched by student activists gaining political experience and a national profile by leading demonstrations.

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