Student governments are experiencing decline and collapse in the twenty-first century, yet we should not underestimate their importance in contemporary political life. Justin Patrick argues that student governments are valuable resources for political scientists looking to understand democracy at a fundamental level. He says we should take them seriously – in research and in practice
Student democracy, or democratic decision-making undertaken by students in educational institutions, is often overlooked in political science. But I believe we should return to studying student democracy, if only because examining it through a political science lens can help develop improvements in both theory and practice. There is, likewise, much that student democracy can teach us about politics and democracy more broadly.
Student government decisions can have real-world impacts on the student experience and education micropolitics. This stands in contrast with political simulations activities such as the Model United Nations, which teach procedures specific to particular decision-making bodies. Just because a government is made up of students doesn't mean it is any less political, important, or salient.
Also, we shouldn't dismiss student politics simply because some student governments are small. Just like other forms of politics, there are many levels of student government, some of which can wield significant influence. The European Students’ Union, for instance, represents about 20 million students, and it advocates for them on a continental scale.
And just imagine what a world students’ union, founded and governed by students, could achieve in representing hundreds of millions of people. There is scope here, too, to amplify the voices and concerns of students – typically marginalised people. Given the potential scale of this global union, its establishment could even lead to stronger bilateral relations with other global players.
Just as education micropolitics is inevitable, so is student politics. Education is, for the most part, necessary for socioeconomic survival in contemporary society. In their time/s as formal learners, citizens will therefore be represented by some form of student government, or a failed state or state-of-nature-esque equivalent. Joining a student government is different from joining a voluntary membership organisation like a club or other extracurricular group. It is inescapable.
Indeed, student government may be a citizen’s first experience with politics in a system where they have full political rights. This raises important questions about how impactful this first contact with politics will be on a citizen’s political life. If student government leaves them disenchanted, will they be less likely to vote in elections for other levels of government? How valuable is this first impression?
If student government leaves a person disenchanted, will they be less likely to vote in elections for other levels of government?
There is one further consideration here. There are more schools in the world than there are countries, or even municipalities. Student governing bodies are thus the most numerous type of governing body on earth. Therefore, if we want to explore the biggest possible dataset of fundamental political practices, student governments are an invaluable resource.
Student populations have high turnover rates; usually four years. Many elected student representatives serve only one-year terms. Let's compare this to a society in which the average lifespan is eighty years. One year in a student government would therefore be equivalent to twenty years in that society.
This greatly accelerates the rate at which institutional knowledge is lost, election cycles occur, and the entire political process plays out. We can extend this analogy even further to argue that fifty years in a student government, also understood as fifty election cycles, would be the equivalent of a thousand years in terms of data generation and knowledge production.
Fifty years in a student government, or fifty election cycles, would be the equivalent of a thousand years in a society in which elected representatives serve only one-year terms
The study of student governments can therefore shed light on what happens after high numbers of election cycles. For example, if we are researching the effects of party systems on political polarisation, it would be quicker to observe the effects within a student government following the implementation of parties over multiple election cycles than it would for national election cycles. Student governments can be research partners!
Around the world, student democracy is under threat. In some countries, appointed student and/or youth councils are replacing student governments. These groups provide token advice to educational leaders and policymakers, encouraged by academics. Elsewhere, laws have made student government membership voluntary instead of automatic. This is the equivalent of being able to opt out of taxation, and has weakened student government capacities considerably. Recent changes to Erasmus+ funding criteria, for example, rendered student governments across Europe ineligible for funding on which they had long relied. This threw into question the Erasmus+ scheme's continuing existence.
Many student governments have already collapsed. The International Union of Students and the United States Student Association are two notable examples in a growing list.
What will fill the void when student governments have gone? Will it be unelected councils, surveys, or protest movements?
What will fill the void? Will it be appointed councils or councillors who will nod and smile at whatever their appointers propose? Perhaps it will be feedback surveys in which the student voice is constrained within the parameters of unelected, non-student education stakeholders. Will students resort to social movements to make their voice heard? Will they be forced to risk their lives in dangerous protest to do what other education stakeholders could accomplish in a boardroom? Or will things go back to the way they were before, when students were seen but not heard?
I believe we should study and support student government the same way we study other forms of government. We should study it as real politics rather than merely as a means to learn leadership skills for the future. We should measure voter turnout and other potential indicators for democratic quality in student governments just as we do for other forms of government. Maybe this will teach us things about how to make representative democracy work better. It might even save student government from total collapse.
After all, if student government is a citizen’s first experience with full political citizenship, should we not do all we can to make this experience the best it can be?