It was one of the defining episodes of the 1960s – a student-initiated revolt against the old order that led to a general strike and economic paralysis across France.

So widespread and disruptive were the events of “May ‘68” that President Charles de Gaulle was forced to flee to Baden-Baden in Germany, where he met with General Jacques Massu, commander of the French occupation forces, to discuss the possibility of intervention by the army.

The civil unrest that followed from a seemingly innocuous protest over dormitory visit restrictions at Paris Nanterre University continues to reverberate in the collective imagination. It has numerous echoes in popular culture, including Walter Henry “Wolfie” Smith, Robert Lindsay’s much-loved “urban guerrilla” from the 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith, and Rick, the conceited poet-anarchist played by Rik Mayall in The Young Ones.

There are worries, however, that today’s campuses have been drained of the same activist spirit.

READ MORE: Education expert asks if SNP will be 'honest' about past record

Student leaders are under pressure to explain why they have not taken to the streets as institutions suffer the effects of lecturer strikes and a relentless funding squeeze. Some have also suggested that those representing learners are in the pocket of management and do not want to confront bosses in public.

Concerns emerged during a meeting of Holyrood’s Education, Children and Young People Committee, with Willie Rennie of the Scottish Liberal Democrats highlighting the lack of protests. Addressing student leaders who had been asked to appear before MSPs, he said: “When I was in higher education, student unions were a source of revolution and agitation, and I’ve not really picked that up today. The college sector has faced 10 years’ worth of cuts. They [have] flat cash over the next few years and 43,000 whole-time equivalent places have been lost over several years. And I’m just wondering why you’re not angry and why you’re not protesting.”

The committee’s guests insisted they were angry but stressed that action “doesn’t seem to make much difference”.

HeraldScotland: Willie Rennie has asked why students are not protesting against college cuts.Willie Rennie has asked why students are not protesting against college cuts.

Kirsten Koss, depute president (Aberdeen/Altens) at North East Scotland College Students’ Association, said: “We’ve gone through the National Union of Students (NUS) and NUS have said how angry we are about it. But, whatever we do, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. We’re angry about the cuts and we want to see education flourish but, whatever we say, we don’t seem to get anywhere. I think we’re at a brick wall now.”

She added: “With the industrial action with the lecturers, we completely agree with it. But, at the same time, our education is being impacted and, unless there’s a change in funding, nothing’s going to happen so, you agree and you support it but, on the other hand... students are not having their assessments marked and, therefore, they’re having issues with progression. So, they become angry at the wrong people because of that. The problem is the funding – that’s the problem.”

READ MORE: Dundee high schools face fresh strike threat

Drawing attention to relatively peaceful relations between student associations and college bosses, Ross Greer of the Scottish Greens asked: “Is there any bearing on that from the fact that your relationship with management also involves the funding that student associations receive from colleges? Do you ever feel that the financial relationship compromises your ability to perhaps be a bit tougher in that relationship and a bit more combative?” Ms Koss said: “Absolutely – it would be really, really difficult for us to flat out, publicly disagree with the college whereas the Educational Institute of Scotland Further Education Lecturers’ Association (EIS-FELA) can just go out there and say, ‘we don’t agree with this’.”

Heather Innes, vice-president for higher education and president elect at the Highlands and Islands Students’ Association, told MSPs that a less adversarial approach was often more productive.

She said: “There definitely is still an anger there, but I’ve found that being diplomatic often yields better results.

"We have a really good relationship with the regional team at the University of the Highlands and Islands and, often, sitting down and having those discussions behind closed doors yields better results than standing up against them.”