Protest Activity in the British Student Movement, 1945 to 2011

  • Sarah Webster

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the historical pattern of protest activity involving students from the University of Manchester and the London School of Economics between the academic years 1945/46 and 2010/11. Gathered through a protest event analysis of the universities' student press, quantitative protest event data is presented that establishes a continuous pattern of protest activity at both institutions from the mid-fifties onwards. Adding to a small body of scholarship on student activism beyond the sixties epoch, the thesis challenges the assumption that student protest peaked in the late sixties, which currently dominates the student protest literature. The decade's wave of student unrest is widely presented as exceptional and unprecedented, a golden age of student protest, casting non-sixties student generations as politically apathetic. The quantitative data refutes these claims, demonstrating an ongoing history of student protest on both campuses that sets precedent for the sixties mobilisations and undermines the idea that student apathy is pervasive on the post-sixties university campus. Between 1945/46 and 2010/11, University of Manchester students are involved in 840 protest events, while London School of Economics students participate in 505 protest events, a combined total of 1345 protest events. Using qualitative data drawn from the student press and other archival materials alongside the numeric data, the thesis argues that the British student unrest in the sixties had precedent in the fifties and early sixties, noting tactical and ideological similarities. Further, the thesis refutes the student apathy narrative using protest activity as evidence of student political participation, but also pointing to student engagement in formal and informal political activity, such as political party membership, voluntary action and campaigning for NGOs and pressure groups. Echoing studies on youth political participation, the thesis finds that students remain politically engaged across the twentieth and twenty-first century. Drawing together social movement theory with insights from the archival materials and student press, the thesis identifies factors contributing to the emergence, decline and survival of student protest activity at the University of Manchester and London School of Economics. The thesis establishes that progressive political and social values, student produced movement frames, access to resources on campus, political opportunities and campus activist networks interact to facilitate the emergence of student unrest. It also demonstrates that political factionalism and some forms of authority responses to unrest are key factors in declines in student protest activity. The thesis argues that attempts at co-option and repression by the state and the university, normally understood to prompt declines in protest, may actually provoke further activity amongst students. Applying Nella Van Dyke's theory of 'hotbeds of activism' to the British context (1998), the thesis argues protest activity survives across the timeframe, because both universities have developed student activist networks and subcultures that maintain the traditions and practices of activism on campus. Activist expertise is transferred between student generations through the student unions, student societies and informal groupings, ensuring that that the campus activist networks are primed to seize opportunities for protest activity on and off campus.
Date of Award1 Aug 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorNick Crossley (Supervisor) & Kevin Gillan (Supervisor)


  • LSE
  • Social movements
  • Student activism
  • Protest
  • Student
  • University of Manchester
  • Student Protest

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