Organised collective action has played a major role in the history of social, political, and cultural change everywhere in the world. As such, we can say that student activism is nearly as old as the university itself and that student activists have occupied an invaluable position in the development of social justice orientations across all areas of third-level education.

By bringing attention to issues specific to their respective institutions — such as harassment and bullying — to standing in solidarity with broader national and global movements against war and climate change, third-level students have posed a challenge to social injustices of all kinds for generations.

In Ireland, students have contributed to local and national campaigns (such as same-sex marriage and the repeal movement), and have organised demonstrations against state austerity policies and the national housing crisis.

As such, third-level educators are in a unique position: we have the opportunity to not only support students in refining their political outlooks and engagements, but also listen to and learn from them in ways that most others cannot.


With the aim of making the links between our politics and pedagogies more explicit, it is important that we recognise the distinction between service and engagement on the one hand, and collective organising on the other.

Within the HE sector, the institutional impetus for developing a social justice orientation rests largely on the drive to improve and expand upon its existing services. In such a way, educators’ understanding of academic engagement is generally defined in terms of individual mentoring activities, participation in formal associations and committees, networking, and departmental work. Altogether, the undertaking of service is largely oriented in terms of the institutions in which we teach.

Less often are the conditions of service and engagement conceived more broadly as openly and collectively challenging the educational systems and institutions themselves — in service of what Higher Education should be and in accordance with our duty of care to students.


When it comes to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or SoTL), the conceptualisation of educators as agents of change takes root in the “very dispositions and beliefs that undergird social justice” (Dhingra & Hagiwara 2006, p. 2). For Dhingra and Hagiwara, this means “acting against oppression… in defense of those categorically and historically subordinated in society” (ibid.). Change agents in education are thus

“individuals or groups that broaden and deepen the social and/or cultural capital of learners by initiating change locally, utilizing local resources (human and material) to induce change within and potentially beyond the borders of the community” (ibid.).

With this understanding, providing opportunities for all learners to access the knowledge and resources necessary to critically engage with the worlds they inhabit means educators must aim to augment learners’ perception of their capacities to do so.

For Shields (2004), teachers need to facilitate a moral dialogue with their students. By fostering positive relationships and working to develop “socially just and deeply democratic” spaces for teaching and learning, educators enable students to “deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Freire 2018, p. 38).


As Rowan (2019) reminds us, “education has never been, and can never be, a neutral act” (p. 2). And societies “do not simply benefit from ‘getting an education'” (ibid.). Certainly, education can be used as an instrument for conformity and the integration of individuals into the existing systems as much as it can become the “practice of freedom” (hooks 1994).

In this light, it is crucial that we — as teachers operating within the institutions of HE — think about the kinds of messages our stated politics in and out of the classroom as well as our wider academic engagements send to our students. We should ask ourselves how we work to serve the existing structures and systems as much as we may endeavour to change them. And by the same token, we need to listen to what our students are saying to us.


Indeed, over the years students have shone a light on the ways in which our institutions fail to support and advance their education and livelihoods through various modes of direct action. These include independent reports, organised demonstrations, and the formation of various networks and groups. For instance:

From the Irish Times (Sep 20, 2012): Sean Phelan, a bar studies student at DIT, and Aoife Price, a politics and international relations student at University of Limerick, discuss what lies ahead for their generation.

  • In a 2017 survey of more than 3,500 students, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) found that almost 40 students relied on friends and emergency homelessness services due to the increasing unavailability of affordable accommodation.
  • More recently, the USI reported that almost 40% of college students suffer from severe levels of anxiety and 30% experience severe depression, and approximately one-fifth feel as though they have no one to talk to.
  • And across the country, postgraduate student workers and our casually-contracted colleagues have drawn our eyes to the exploitative conditions of their precarious employment in teaching, research, and administration across the academe. Groups such as Third Level Workplace Watch, United in Precarity, and the TCD PhD Workers Rights Group have thusly challenged the institutional cultures and practices that further entrench inequalities among the most vulnerable students and staff.

On this note, it is incumbent upon us as Third Level educators to think not only about what it means to enact and facilitate change in our pedagogical engagements, but the very conditions and structures under which we attempt do so.


Freire, P. (2018) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Bloomsbury.

hooks, b. (1994) Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New Westminster: Post Hypnotic Press.

Koshi, D. & Hagiwara, S. (2006) Change Agents in Science Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Rowan, L. (2019) Higher Education and Social Justice: The Transformative Potential of University Teaching and the Power of Educational Paradox. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schutz, A. & Sandy, M. G. (2012) Collective Action for Social Change: an Introduction to Community Organizing. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Shields, C. M. (2004) “Dialogic Leadership for Social Justice: Overcoming Pathologies of Silence” in Educational Administration Quarterly, 40(1): 109-132