Student activism in higher education: The politics of students’ role in hegemonic university change

Author: Aidan Cornelius-Bell

Cornelius-Bell, Aidan, 2021 Student activism in higher education: The politics of students’ role in hegemonic university change, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Student participation and activism in higher education has faced successive challenges in its recent history, including Voluntary Student Unionism, state legislature removing student representation, and in response to the stark global challenges of COVID-19. In 2021, student participation has risen again, coupled with an increasing imperative for global democratic governance revisioning. In response to this context, this doctoral research makes several significant original contributions to knowledge in light of this change. First, it examines the largely unexplored landscape of student participation in governance through ethnography. Moreover, it deploys an increasingly displaced methodological frame of Gramscian social science and philosophy of praxis. Finally, through its acknowledgement of the ongoing cultural significance of activism and hegemony, it summons the possibility for fundamentally repurposing higher education.

This thesis is nestled in the context of a rapidly shifting higher education sector, where the position of students is continuously reimagined. Situated in accelerated late-stage capitalism, powered by neoliberal impulses and managerialist institutions, the role and position of the student is narrowed. In Australia, the ongoing revisioning of university purpose and politics has enabled a burrowing in of ideologies about what and who students are and can be, what purpose higher education and academia serve, and what the production of citizens can and will look like. In this context, the complexity of the relationship between student politics, student power and student activism should not be understated. Despite varied responses from students, under the weight of globalising hegemonic political forces, tighter control mechanisms vice-grip the university sector. Student politics, student power and student activism emerge as distinct and situated responses to and for the institutions themselves. In this regard, at Flinders University, the context for this ethnographic study, student politicians have circled back to a point of owning the controlling interest in the ‘student voice’ from inside the University’s structures. Here, student politicians chosen for their conformity with the hegemonic idealogues are rendered ineffectual and antithetical to the radical golden age of the 1960s. The 1960s and 1970s student radical period is examined for context and clarity, and to position the differential movement of students’ political positioning inside higher education. Detailing and examining this context, this thesis draws from situated ethnographic research, more than 24 in-depth interviews with current and past students, and on the nexus of literature and praxis necessary for understanding the social world of a university and its dissidents. Understanding the context at Flinders University in terms of its culture, politics and economics over time are an essential part of this study. Moreover, earnest empirical research provides the necessary building blocks to create praxis which lasts longer than the flash in the pan of the 1960s radical moment.

This thesis combines, in an innovative form, Marxist sociology through applied and embedded ethnographic praxis, and the political theory of Antonio Gramsci as a fundamental and underpinning support for the ethnographic work. Each section draws together a range of theory, practice and possibility in a motivating and challenging form. Political by design, the thesis works to robustly support, through an understanding of quality theory, a serious and enlightened praxis of possibility that challenges the position of the student in higher education. The tropes of public good, freedom and integrity are now found decayed and embodied in new modes, reinforcing the position of the CEO-dictator. This doctoral research, jutting from this cacophonous background, reasserts praxis and provide a meaningful case for understanding university student activism and politics. It does this through a contextualised, historically informed and robust critique of students’ relative positions and their ability to perform initiative under hegemony, which is necessarily political. In so doing, it contextualises the student career-politician as the embodiment of state corruption and hegemonic reproduction and identifies the role and possibility for the organic intellectual activist. This realises a Gramscian imaginary of student qua class leader. Indeed, regardless of the level of agreement on epistemic frameworks, the deployment of Gramscian theory provides a shared space to intellectually dwell and labour over students’ positionality and politics in the time of COVID-19 and gives some hope that a post-COVID campus might emerge that values the voices of students and staff in the academy. The mythical 1960s imaginings of broadening curricular model, emergent pedagogic process, and new forms of inclusion and robust discussion may once again surface. This educative movement may again activate new modes of interjection, injection and interference that enable a new form of grassroots educating and collegial social uprising that harnesses universities as spaces of possibility which may create conditions for enlightened social revolution and a collective saving of the planet and its human inhabitants. This is an education not simply for knowledge’s sake, nor for the reproduction of a select elite, but a realisation of the power for education to enlighten social groups on their social conditions and the culture of their society. The organic intellectual is a direct reimagining of the hegemon’s traditional intellectual, towards a location for the production of a better culture, society and planet. This thesis not only provides an intellectual challenge but is positioned as a motivator for cultural change and conversation.

Keywords: Higher Education, Student Activism, Gramscian social theory, Marxism, Students as Partners, Governance, Democracy, Sociology

Subject: Sociology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Professor Tara Brabazon