Students need to keep challenging the system
Decades after the Velvet Revolution, student idealism remains vital in tackling issues such as climate change, racism and division
Vaclav Havel, who went on to lead the bloodless “Velvet Revolution”, waves to his supporters from a balcony in Prague in December 19, 1989. Photograph: Reuters
This Saturday is International Students’ Day. The day was named to mark events on November 17th, 1939, when the Nazis stormed the University of Prague where students were protesting against the occupation of Czechoslovakia.
Eight students and a lecturer were murdered and over 1,000 students were sent to concentration camps.
Fifty years later, to mark that event, Czech and Slovak students also protested and this time faced off the Communists in events that led to the Velvet Revolution in that country.
Students were also to the fore in 1968 in Ireland and around the world, challenging civil rights abuses and an old governing order, and led to enormous changes in society and in our education systems.
In the decades since, higher education has expanded rapidly from being an elite pursuit to one of mass access.
From participation rates of one in 20 in the 1960s, more than three in every five of school leaving age now go on to higher education.
It is clear that students in Ireland have been to the fore in the big socio-political debates of modern times, taking the lead on issues such as marriage equality and abortion.
In higher education, it is now inconceivable for students not to be consulted on any major decision affecting their education and student representatives sit on governing bodies and national boards.
The 1998 Education Act provides for recognition for student councils at second level and although the level of engagement is patchy across the system, progressive schools provide for effective consultation.
But it is not simply enough for students to have the right to seats at the table. There is also a responsibility to engage with the issues, to be imaginative through seeing if things could be improved, to challenge the ‘echo chamber’ that can often exist in education as well as in wider society.
There is plenty of evidence of today’s students doing that.
It was inspiring to see the campaign of the students at Tullamore College against the deportation of their schoolmate, Nonso Muojeke, result in the successful granting of clemency by Justice Minister, Charlie Flanagan, last month.
Their determination matches that of their fellow students in Parkland, Florida, who after 17 of their classmates were killed, they have led a growing campaign for gun control in the United States.
It echoes the efforts of students in Hong Kong resisting the efforts of Beijing to control their education system.
School leavers who started college this year in Ireland grew up through a decade of austerity, where trust in institutions declined and now see a world where facts are challenged and political systems are being upended.
It is essential that their voices are heard and the ideas they put forward explored when it comes to issues such as climate change, migration, cybersecurity, combating racism and division.
Given the global uncertainties that we face, student idealism, as in times past, may provide the answers.
Malcolm Byrne is head of communications with the Higher Education Authority. The views he expresses are his own.