Some international students are getting left behind because student political movements are too focused on local issues, says Yvan Zolo. Could globally coordinated political engagement hold the answer?
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has exposed international students to various forms of violence. The war has paralysed multiple aspects of social life in the affected countries and has led to the interruption of educational activities in areas close to the war fronts. The authorities took measures to help international students leave the war zones. However, during these evacuations, there was discrimination in treating international students from the African continent. Unlike other international students, there was no prompt evacuation of African students. The fallacious reasons put forward to justify this were that some students lacked the necessary paperwork to leave Ukraine, while others faced financial difficulties in covering the costs associated with evacuation. These refusals and delays are another example of the marginalisation Africans face; if not, why would there be interventions to save students in a war zone but not African students?
This type of injustice has been present throughout history, but few expected this flagrant act of racism and discrimination in the 21st century. Despite being as valuable and competent as any other category of students, international students of African origin have always been considered less important, less intelligent, less experienced and even less qualified as their counterparts from other continents. This discrimination has led to African students being poorly treated by academic institutions and governments. Without robust political engagement from students to support the rights of all international students, such discrimination will continue. The Covid-19 pandemic and the current crisis in Europe demonstrate that no one is safe until everyone is safe. There is a need for genuine solidarity accompanied by concrete actions when dealing with inequalities and discrimination.
Student politics has the potential to bring about substantial social changes and help resolve discrimination in the treatment of international students. But this kind of student engagement is not autonomous because it remains dependent on national, local and institutional agendas. This explains why students’ representatives cannot meet the needs of students that are not prioritised by national plans.
Student politics has therefore shifted from being a solution provider to a figurehead that simply reinforces decisions already taken by governments. Some of these decisions do not respect the fundamental interests of international students that student representatives have the mandate to protect. This explains why, once a government neglects international students’ rights, the global community only belatedly hears about these violations. This is used to justify the delay in implementing solutions for marginalised and discriminated international students. Of course, student politics is not meant to be above local or national politics. Still, given that students are the leaders of tomorrow, there is a need to provide students with a solid voice to preserve the interests of those they represent.
In the past, engagement and activism have proven to be a substantial factor in the fight for students’ rights. The goal of student political engagement is improving students’ living conditions before, during and after joining educational institutions. In some communities, student politics has advocated for the reduction of fees to accommodate students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. In other communities, student politics has enabled the admission of students into institutions that once denied them access due to their cultural and racial origins. Student politics could therefore be a valuable component in resolving the problems faced by international students, especially African students in the current crisis in Ukraine.
For more sustainable and significant impact, there is a need for globally coordinated student political engagement. A global students’ representative body consisting of regional delegates from educational institutes across the world is needed. This will ensure the amplification of actions taken by student representatives in one corner of the globe by those in another corner.
It is important to note that the idea of globally coordinated student political engagement has been recognised for some time. In 2022, the Global Student Government was introduced, following the collapse of the International Union of Students in the 2000s. The Global Student Government consists of regional delegates from educational institutes all over the world, making it a truly global representation of student voices. It provides an opportunity for students to work together on global issues, amplifying the impact of their actions and advocating for their rights on a larger scale. With a coordinated effort, students can more effectively advocate on issues such as climate change, social justice and education access, making a significant and sustainable impact. This global body also aims to uphold the interests of international students, ensure that decisions taken locally are endorsed by the international community and see to it that international students’ interests are considered when making crucial decisions.
The inclusiveness provided by a global student representative body will go a long way to resolve current challenges.
Currently, student politics appears to be individualistic, with local student representatives mainly tackling local issues faced by the students they represent. This helps to resolve local challenges, but once stakes beyond the local community are involved, a plan implicating other global stakeholders is required.
The inclusiveness provided by a global student representative body will go a long way to resolve current challenges and lead to a more united international community of students, ensuring the consideration of their rights. A global students’ representative body is not a magic formula to resolve all issues. However, this approach will create a generation of future leaders attuned to inequalities and eager to implement inclusive solutions to problems faced by students and humanity at large.
A global student community
Some of the most significant social revolutions originated from educational institutions, and students led these revolutions. Educational institutions can be part of the solution to curb the racism, discrimination and marginalisation that African international students face. Unfortunately, student politics is seen as mere activism by many and not a source of answers to society’s problems. Resolving discriminatory events like those observed in Ukraine when handling international student evacuation requires that marginalised international student voices are echoed worldwide by their counterparts. The fact that student representatives are subject to local politics and do not have the potential for their actions to be endorsed by the international community reinforces the discrimination faced by international students.
This global student community could offer a redefinition of student political engagement.
It is crucial to have a solid global community of student representatives to oversee the actions taken by local student representatives. This community should be ready to support local representatives when defending students’ rights before their local authorities. This community can also contribute to easing the living conditions of marginalised international students worldwide. This global student community could offer a redefinition of student political engagement by upholding the reason student politics exists in the first place: to be the voice of the voiceless.
This post was awarded runner-up in the LSE HE Essays in Education Blog Challenge in June 2022 in the student category.
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.