Is ‘student engagement’ just a mirage? The case for student activism

Emily Danvers, Jessica Gagnon

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This paper considers the positioning of student campus activism within a discourse of student engagement to explore how student engagement becomes framed as legitimate/ illegitimate. Using pivotal points within the 2012-14 Sussex Against Privatisation/Occupy Sussex campaigns at the University of Sussex, we compare how student activists construct themselves with how they are constructed by the university administration. Our focus is on how student activists are positioned as troublemakers, lacking valid critical capacity and incapable of independent, mature, reasoned political positioning. We argue that the construction of student activist identities as immature and dangerous both devalues the agency of the protestors but also demonstrates how student engagement is shaped by normative discourses of what constitutes a legitimately engaged student in higher education. Positioning students as being problematic and misguided is potentially incongruous with discourses of students as consumers, as partners and as producers. We propose that in many cases, student engagement is simply a mirage for other organisational practices and that the concept is limited and can be limiting. The relationship between student engagement and activism is explored using Ahmed’s (2012) work on non- performative concepts and what it means to speak in and about higher education.
Original languageEnglish
JournalStudent Engagement and Experience Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2014


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