Is student union a tokenism of student participation in school governance?

Yan Wing LEUNG, Wai Wa Timothy YUEN, Chi Keung Eric CHENG, Chunlan GUO

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This article is a report on part of a larger research on student participation in school governance in the Hong Kong context. It addresses the question ‘Is the Student Union a tokenism of student participation in school governance in the context of Hong Kong?’. The research adopts a mixed methodology comprising both quantitative and qualitative methods. For the quantitative study, 3209 valid student questionnaires from 51 secondary schools of different backgrounds were collected. For the qualitative study, four schools of different levels of student participation were involved in in-depth case studies. Semi-structured interviews and field observations with teachers and students were conducted to collect qualitative data. The study revealed that from the questionnaire, the ‘one student, one vote’ policy was an apparently fair, transparent and democratic procedure for Student Union elections, and gave the Student Union a positive image in relation to student participation. However, the in-depth case studies revealed that these were superficial perceptions. Instead, it was found that schools shared very limited powers with their Student Unions, where the Student Union would have power only in trivial school operational matters. The ultimate, real power was in the hands of school authorities, seriously limiting the influence of student participation. Our studies further revealed that whether students were satisfied with this disempowering situation or not, most of them had become ‘positive and passive’. This was because they had been socialized to accept the status quo, without expressing dissident voices, as they did not want to oppose the caring school ethos that they valued. In summary, Student Unions in Hong Kong are, in general, close to tokenism, a representative mechanism that cannot take meaningful action to bring forth genuine changes in important school matters. This may have negative impacts on students’ citizenship development, and ends up with cultivating students to be non-questioning, non-participatory, cynical, passive and docile citizens. Copyright © 2016 Intellect Ltd Article.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)157-174
JournalCitizenship Teaching & Learning
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016


Leung, Y. W., Yuen, T. W. W., Cheng, E. C. K., & Guo, C. (2016). Is student union a tokenism of student participation in school governance?. Citizenship Teaching & Learning, 11(2), 157-174.


  • Civic education
  • Constructs of child
  • Here and now citizen
  • School civic mission
  • School governance
  • Student participation
  • Student Union


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