Student Activism in Jamaica: Dead or Alive?

Korea’s Ewha-Park-Choi Scandal

Just last week the president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, was removed from office as the constitutional court voted in favor of an impeachment that was previously set in motion in December of 2016. The impeachment and ruling were rooted in the discovery of a scandal that revealed that Park was involved in string of corrupt activities through her friend and close associate Choi Soon-sil. The Associated Press (2017) explains that Investigations revealed that Choi, who was not a government worker, may have been privy to very sensitive state information and used her connection to the president to pressure businesses into ‘donating’ over $70 million US, some of which was for her personal use, to two non-profit organizations that she controlled. But how was the scandal uncovered? Reports indicate that it all started with student protests at Ewha Womans University, one of South Korea’s most prestigious higher education institutions.

In the summer of 2016, the Associated Press (2017) explains, students at Ewha, protested against the school’s administration to create a new degree programme. The programme was withdrawn from the all-female university, but disgruntled students continued protests, this time to have the president of the school submit her resignation. The persistence of the students led to the revelation that the school was extending favoritism to Choi’s daughter who was enrolled at Ewha. This rippled into an investigation on Choi which ultimately formed into the tsunami that toppled Park’s presidency.


Although the students at Ewha were praised for their activism, as it was the seed that sprout into uncovering of the national scandal, they were not met with open arms during the times they were protesting. Afterall, who likes protestors to begin with? In fact, the student protestors, who were numbered at about 200, were met by some 1600 officers during one of their demonstrations which took the form of occupying a building. Yet despite the push back, the Ewha Students persisted, and now their university is free of a corrupt president and South Korea is free of a corrupt President Park.

The Golden Age

If one were to take a look at several decades ago, it would be quite clear that student activism has not been something new. In fact it has not been uncommon that student activism would, whether directly or indirectly, shift the foundations of national politics as the students at Ewha did in Korea. There are many documented student protests, some even as early as the “May fourth” protests in China, that took place in 1919 over students disagreement with China granting Shadong Territory to Japan, and led to China refusing to sign the World War One Treaty of Versailles which would have sanctioned the handing over of the territory.

However, the 1960s, and 70s, are considered by some to be the Golden Age of student activism because of the major impact student protests had on their country and the world, and not to mention the brutality and bloodshed, among other challenges, that the student activists had to endure. For example there was the Vietnam protests in the 1966-1970, where approximately 4 million students from 450 different institutions rose up against the Vietnam War and contributed to President Nixon withdrawing the American troops some years later (Finan, 2013; Saucedo, n.d.); also in the 60s, students were key in the spearheading of the civil rights movement in the US and led the fights against segregation through their Student’ Non-Violent Coordination Committee (Gupta, 2016); in France there was the ‘Protests of May’ during 1968 where students who were disgruntled with the outdated nature of  educational system as well as the lack of job opportunities took to the streets to and held week long protests that eventually led to the reformation of the education bill as well as better wages (Mukherjee, 2016); and in 1976, there was the Soweto Uprisings in South Africa where thousands of students left their schools and rallied at the Orlando Stadium as a protest against the Apartheid and would ripple into the fall of the regime and the freedom of Nelson Mandela (Saucedo, n.d; Finan, 2013; Mukherjee, 2016).


Caribbean students were no strangers to the student activist movement of the 1960s and 70s. For example, Caribbean students at the then Sir George Williams University, now called the Concordia University, held the largest student occupation in Canadian history when they occupied the school’s computer lab from January 29 to February 11 in 1969. Dubbed the Computer Riots or Sir George William Affair, the protest led to more student centered reforms at the university and paved the way for similar reforms in other higher education institutions (the guardian, 2014).

Right in Jamaica, there were also the Walter Rodney Riots of 1968. Westmaas (2008) explains that the riots were in response to Walter Rodney, a Guyanese Pan-Africanist, political activist and scholar who lectured at the then University College of the West Indies (UCWI), being banned from entering the country because of his communist views. The riots in Jamaica inspired similar student protests across the Caribbean Region. Students protested at the UCWI Campuses in Trinidad and Barbados and demanded that the Barbadian and Trinidadian Governments take action against the Jamaican Government. In Guyana some 300 students marched to the Prime Minister’s residence to demand that the Guyanese Government also take action (Westmaas, 2008).


Student Activism Today

Today student activism is still alive in many countries around the world. For example in the US alone there were approximately 160 protests on college campuses in the 2014 fall semester alone. There have been the student led #BlackLivesMatter walkouts and “die-ins,”  as well as protests on a spectrum of other issues, including high tuition costs, university divestment, and campus sexual assault (Zhou & Green, 2015). Also in North America, approximately 250, 000 students from several student unions protested in Quebec, Canada over hikes in tuition fees in college and forced the government to put a freeze on tuition fees (Mukherjee, 2016). There have also been major protests in countries such as Egypt, Greece, Chile, Mexico, South Africa, India and Mayanmar to name a few (Zhou & Green, 2015).


However, can it be said that student activism is still alive in Jamaica? Sure, the ‘Golden Age’ of student protesting may have passed with the 60’s and 70s and it is not expected that students would necessarily protest the same way as their predecessors did. However many feel that in Jamaica, the students unlike their counterparts at Ewha, generally lack the political will, strength and concern to take part in ongoing protests to fix the ills in their own institutions.

Despite there being a few protests here and there, and now and again, there have not been protests on the magnitude as there once were or addressing large scale issues that were once addressed. Also, it is felt by many that students across Jamaica are distracted, and in some ways lack a real concern for societal issues that their predecessors had. Think about it, when last has there been a national protest of students? Several questions come to mind when thinking about the current situation: Is it that the students are really distracted or they lack concern or is it that there aren’t any issues worth protesting against? Is it that the world today is ‘A OK’, and students are comfortable and do not feel that the current ills are minor? Or is it that unlike the predecessors, students today are scared, less aggressive and aren’t willing to march in the face of arrests and even death for a cause?

Some are of the opinion protesting across the world has witnessed a rebirth of some sort with the era of social media where the ‘articulate minority’ voice their concerns and air their growls on digital mediums such as Facebook, twitter, Instagram and YouTube. However, some believe that this very ‘rebirth’ is indeed the death of real student activism and have termed social media protests as ‘Slacktivism” because though part of the social justice conversation, social media activism rarely effects change and social media users rarely go the step further to act upon the very issue they were ‘protesting’ about (Robertson, 2014). The use of social media has been a popular medium among the ‘articulate minority’ of Jamaica and many students who want to voice their concerns about society. Yet despite popular outcry by many, the lack of change begs the question about if these persons have taken the next step to participate in intensified action.


Maybe it is a case where protesting has become outdated in Jamaica and students at Jamaican higher education institutions have found more effective ways of addressing institutional and national issues. Or is it? Who knows. Maybe it is a case where student activism is dead and students in Jamaica need to take a page out of their Ewha counterparts. If Walter Rodney, who was a staunch student activist were alive, he would do what he did back in his day and fuel students to taking more active stances against ills. Maybe he is rolling in his grave today.



Finan, V. (2013, December 11). A brief history of student protest: From ‘no women at      Cambridge’ in 1897 to ‘cops off campus’ in 2013. Retrieved from

Gupta, G. (2016, February 21). JNU Row: the volatile history of student protests across the world. Retrieved from

Robertson, C. (2014, October, 14). Slacktivism: The Downfall of Millennials. Retrieved from

Saucedo, H. (n.d.).  10 Bloodiest Student Protests in History. Retrieved from   

The Associated Press. (2017, March 14).  How protests at a South Korean university led to the downfall of President Park Geun-hye. The Canadian Press. Retrieved from

The Guardian. (2014, March 24). Historic Caribbean student demonstration now on film. Retrieved from

Mukherjee, S. (2016, March 4). 10 of the largest uprisings in history that started as student protests. Retrieved from

Westmaas, N. (2017, September 21). Walter Rodney: ‘Groundings’ and the Jamaica ban forty years on.      Retrieved from       %E2%80%98groundings%E2%80% 99- and-the-jamaica-ban-forty-years-on/

Zhou, L., & Green, A. (2015, August 11). Student Protests Around the World. Retrieved from


Student Activism in Jamaica: Dead or Alive?

9 thoughts on “Student Activism in Jamaica: Dead or Alive?

  1. tanneice says:

    What is THE big issue facing students in higher education in Jamaica now? The issue that is common to every and any higher education institution? There may need to be a networking across and between the guilds of students from the various universities in Jamaica to come up with a cause worthy enough to hit the streets with. I am not sure what that ONE main cause may be.

    Is violence against women and children a concern for our students in higher education?

    Is the ratio of male to female in higher education a concern?

    Do we want equity in admission and assessment?

    Are we crying for full tuition exemption (free post-secondary) for higher education?

    Are we concerned about degrees that are not marketable and graduates who are not employable?

    Are we calling for accreditation and recognition of degrees from international accrediting agencies?

    Maybe we have become so self centered, that is the issue is not affecting me directly, then I am ‘good’.

    What is the issue facing students that could be considered urgent enough to rally the masses to the streets?


  2. shenzhem says:

    LOL – Amen I don’t have a Facebook Franz, such a topical issue. Posts change not one thing!

    You are right, I ask the same question, has student activism died in Jamaica at the higher education level? I will hear students mumble and complain to each other but it does not go beyond a complaint. We have had protests by the Guild but not prolonged periods or once they are appeased they go back to normal then the following year the same issue becomes a problem again as it was never solved in the first place.

    We could list several reasons as to why some students might be fearful to join or stage a protest but it all boils down to what are we teaching our students in schools. In fact some of us have been raised to make the best out of a bad situation, some of us a taught to be silent as we fear the implications of voicing our own opinions – based on societal-norms.

    This new generation is completely different from that of the 60s and 70s and as such it will take something MASSIVE (Tanniece has a string of questions) to push students to activate their voices. Too often we complain one day and then forget about the issue the following week because we have been promised better.

    University students should embrace activism and be an agent of social change. Others look up to us as role models, if we sit and accept that which is not right/fair then everyone will think it is okay to sit in a classroom that has outdated sockets, a projector that does not work, a bathroom without water or toiletry, a cashier section with just 2 cashiers to serve numerous students, releasing grades late, improper facilities swarmed by wasps and an air condition that does not work. I can go on and on .

    We need leaders, lecturers to encourage students to activate their voices. But if we are all fearful then how can we effect that change? If we don’t complain then the same issues will prevail, even after you graduate – because we failed to take charge and stand up for something.

    The nature of some systems are highly politicized, kudos to those who have fought for justice and created their own student movements. Jamaica – not there yet – we cannot protest for a day or a week – it has to be continuous until we see change.


  3. wkeisha says:

    ‘Slacktivism’!!! Thank you for the new word.

    Activism in Jamaica, however, is dead. There is no militancy nor solidarity among students anymore.

    The fact is that the typical Jamaican student is lazy and self-serving. I can see a group protesting for a few hours, maybe even a day. But a sit-in, as observed in Korea, or mass riots, as in South Africa, will never be seen in Jamaica. We like to complain and mumble under our breath, as mentioned by Shen, but we will not stand to effect change.

    Indeed, it is a symptom of the society. Jamaicans readily accept anything. Look at the current plastic rice and corn beef scandals. Do you hear anyone rallying to find out what amount of the populous was exposed and the possible impact on our children? Look at the trade union movement. Once upon a time, every time you turn on the television there is a company striking. Have the trade unions lost their teeth too?

    They say ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ and in this technological age, ‘a smartphone video is better than a thousand words’. So these are the methods that the youths of today are employing, to little or no effect. I am product of the 70s, so I am ready to bear my placard for a worthy cause. Yet, I may be one among many and fear has a way of keeping you still. No student wants to be victimized and if my voice is the only one crying in the wilderness, I choose to keep silent. How many of me are out there? Can you say, A LOT.


  4. shanique101 says:

    I think Student activism is not a common practice in Jamaica because of the culture of these ‘google/new’ generation. Students rather to lobby for votes or likes on social media rather than voicing their concerns on topical and emerging issues in higher education. I can recall Dr Saran telling us that most revolution or change started in higher education. I don’t think higher education students really understand how powerful their voices are.

    Not to mention the fact that a group of students can plan a peaceful demonstration or protest and only a handful show up on the day. So, how do we get students to utilize their voices? We often hear, ‘if it is not published, then it never happened.’ If students are afraid to openly protest then why don’t they blog or write opinion articles etc.?

    Then when we do see acts of student activism, it is ‘9 days talk’ and that is it. Notice, when students activism was highly observed was during the murder trials involving Kartel. Students rallied around that case. To some extent, Khajeel Mais’ case got some support. Other than that, you seldom hear of outcry from the higher education community.

    Should lecturers empower students to use their voices? Yes they should!


  5. Maybe there needs to be a real revival in student activism or a thrust towards helping students to be more vocal and to act on issues that are affecting them and their societies. Who knows, maybe the pendulum will swing back after students are tired and fed up and cant take the ills in their universities and communities anymore.


    1. verinica5 says:

      verinica 5 writes
      Dear Franz George
      Students activism will always be an integral part of higher education. Barnett, (1997) stated that tension usually exist between higher education and the society. It is this conflict that resulted in change Barnett (1997) showed that students activism was the catapult that led to the birth of Cambridge in 1209 . A riot between Oxford university and the town folk had forced some students to flee and another University was birth..

      Higher education has been founded on autonomy and rationality. The students of higher education were and are still taught higher order intellectual skills. The ability to question the ‘status quo’ and democracy encouraged within the walls of the university of the past is still a part of the culture of higher education today. So do not be fooled when ever the situation arise and students will arise and demand to be noticed and cause change.


  6. Lotoya Bond says:

    Student activism should be more recognized in today’s society because they have a right to voice their opinion about real life issues that they are not comfortable with. When students get a chance to participate in decision making, they will feel more relax and become more interested to function effectively.


  7. I believe student activism is one of the major ways to voice one’s opinion about an unpleasant situation. Students have the rights to education in a growth promoting environment that will make them analytical, assertive and responsible future leaders. However, I think there is a level of passiveness and slacktivism according to Franz and Wkeisha. Students yet to acquire the gumption to defend their rights and being unrelenting until they see results as in the cause of other countries mentioned in Franz’ article.

    In an article written by Jamaica Information Service (JIS) Minister of Information, Culture, Youth and Sport, Olivia Grange, has emphasised that students would be the ones to take the message of positive change for the future, throughout the corners of Jamaica.

    “You are the torch bearers. You are student activists and student activism is no new concept to the youth of Jamaica. I was young once and I was an activist and there is no greater feeling than being passionate about one’s rights, one’s responsibilities, for the good of the society,” Miss Grange said in her message to students, in celebration of International Students Day,
    (JIS, 2008).

    She added, “I have no reservations in asserting that you, as students, the young people of this country, are the ones who will effect positive change in Jamaica. Many past young advocates from our school system have held and are still holding the highest positions of influence in their communities, places of employment, in the churches, and even in our political institutions”.
    Here we go, we have a political head that believes that students have rights and they need to exercise those rights in making their school environment one that is conducive for learning and the society by extension. Student activism does not necessary have to be violent, but peaceful and effective. It should not be a fraction in action when the whole is affected, everyone must show their solidarity in promoting concepts of democracy for a common cause. I believe society and school would have been far better if students as radical revolutionists desire to see change for a particular situation (s).


  8. patknightletts says:

    While i agree with my colleague Shanique that it is not active, there are times when minor eruptions take place at some institutions. According to Altbach, (2016), the student movement of the thirties was concerned largely with the question of war and peace, although it had a strong undercurrent of radical politics. The post-World War II period was one of many concerns on many campuses in the US, and ended only with the rebirth of the student peace movement and later the civil rights movement in the late 1950’s. These groups provided some of the organizational base for the emergence of student activism. Thus, the historical background of student activism in the United States offers a context for the current period of turmoil on American campuses.

    Student activism in Jamaica can be compared to many activism in the United States. American students have been involved in political activities since the beginnings of higher education in the United States. Student activism in America has, in general, been linked to events in the larger society, and only seldom has been concerned with the universities. The early activist groups were small but provided a political education to many who later became active in intellectual life, the labor movement, and other areas. A lot of these groups provided some of the structural base for the beginning of the New Left in the mid-1960. Thus, the historical background of student activism in the United States offers a context for the moment of the past and current that help to promote the moment of student activism today in Jamaica.

    Altbach, P. (2016) Before Berkeley: Historical Perspectives on American Student Activism The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science Vol 395, Issue 1, pp.1 – 14 Retrieved from May 21, 2017.


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