Revival of Student Unions

July 10, 2009

Talks & Interviews

Dr. A. H. Nayyar

Dr. A. H. Nayyar, Senior Research Fellow Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in collaboration with the CPPG conducted a day long workshop on the Revival of Student Unions on the 25th of November 2008. Participants included administrators and students from various universities and colleges in Lahore.

Among the first acts of the new democratically elected government was a commitment to reinstate Student Unions, which were banned under Martial Law in 1984 and later by the Supreme Court in 1993. A draft law in this regard was circulated. To examine the various facets of this law and what impact it may have on the institutions of higher learning in the country, two separate sessions in the day long workshop were conducted to gauge administration and student opinions with regards to the Revival of Student Unions in light of the proposed Act, and to devise a policy framework acceptable to both administrators as well as students.

The proposed Act suggested that the duly elected Student Union would be the sole representative body of the entire student community of the institution and be given representation on the academic and governing bodies of the institution, but not in matters concerning appointment and promotion of faculty and staff. This proposition was quite similar to the constitution of Punjab University in which Student Union was given representation in the Senate, Syndicate, Hall Council and Discipline Committee but not in the Academic Council. Additionally the Act suggested a Code of Conduct (that no student contesting elections shall: identify him/herself on ethnic, religious, sectarian but contrary to earlier tradition also on political basis; project political affiliations on campus or participate in strikes or agitation; carry weapons, narcotics or resort to violence), an Eligibility Criteria (requires written consent of parents/guardian, not convicted by law, not penalized by the discipline committee and not a defaulter) and an Advisory Committee (consisting of head of the institution and representatives of Student Union, faculty, parents and civil society).

Both sessions began with the simple question; why should there be a Student Union on campus? Among the administrators the opinion differed among those who were against any form of a Student Union and those who were acceptable to a Student Union given a guarantee that there would be no political party interference. Administrations’ concerns were rooted in the fears that Student Union would lead to interference by political parties (with their undemocratic culture and fascist tendencies) who would play out their differences on campus using students as mere tools leading to sectarian, ethnic and ideological differences becoming violent in nature. Additionally misuse of power by union officials through disruption in academic schedules and using their representation in governing bodies for commercial gain were other matters of concern. It was though clarified that the status quo and current situation at least in public institutions was not an absence of Student Unions but a lack of electoral process and their legal representation. While Punjab University, Islamia College Civil Lines, Science College, Lahore were dominated by Islami Jamiat –e Tuleba and Dial Singh College by Muslim Students Federation, it was disturbing to note that the actual conduct of these groups was undemocratic because they controlled the institutions by force and not by the ballot. Thus current situation was akin to ‘warlordism’ rather than an elected representative student body. It was also in times of ban that political party in power used MAO college premises for its election campaign while the tradition of bhatta taking from shops and bus routes in the area still existed. Even in terms of violence, situation in public sector universities had been worse in the time of banned union representation than before.

“The status quo and current situation at least in public institutions was not an absence of Student Unions but a lack of electoral process and their legal representation”

Student political involvement, linkages with political parties and structure of student representation differed across the world. In the US, though Young Democrats and Young Republicans had a presence on campus, they had absolutely no link or involvement with the Student Government thus providing a clear separation between university student representation and political parties. This concept of Student Government differed from Student Unions in the sense that elections did not take place between ideologically leaning organized unions but between individuals. (akin to the difference between non-party and party based elections). This was one reason why the culture of strikes and academic disturbance did not exist in US universities. But the political culture of the sub-continent was quite different where strikes seemed a necessary ingredient in registering ones voice and discontent. Thus disruption of academic activities could not be ruled out even when there was no involvement of political parties.

For the students though, Student Unions were a key element of their right of association as enshrined in the constitution, thus question regarding existence of Student Unions posed to them was itself misplaced. There opinion differed regarding the role of political parties. Those wanting independent Student Unions argued that political parties had the whole country to do their partisan politics and bringing the same to campuses would leave no independent thinking among students, primarily because outside money and election support would heavily tilt the balance towards political party linked unions who would be nothing but puppets of political leaders. Those supporting the option of political party linked Student Union argued that in its absence, unions would instead be based on religious or ethnic grounds. Additionally with the voting age limit of 18, it was the students’ democratic right to become part of the student wing of a political party, and practically speaking one could not limit support by political parties through back door channels. They argued that as democratic process at institutions’ matured, autonomy of student wings would become necessary for staying relevant.

“… Student Unions were a key element of students’ right of association as enshrined in the constitution, …”

In the eyes of students, the university had three major stakeholders, the administration (including staff), faculty and students. Thus the main purpose of the Student Union was a platform through which students could be represented according to their rights and interests. Additionally with current educational philosophy heavy tilted towards the jobs market, it was important to tackle de-politicization by raising civic and political awareness through extra-curricular activities, relate class room education to ground realities, and inculcate a democratic culture among students to prepare them for future leadership of the country. One student considered his current university environment as stifling arguing that a child born in jail does not understand freedom. Thus for students to learn about their rights and act responsibly, it was important to institute Student Unions in an evolutionary mechanism. Still they rejected a Student Union which was subservient to the administration, not allowed to conduct political activities or was not included in the decision making process.

“With current educational philosophy heavy tilted towards the jobs market, it was important to tackle de-politicization by raising civic and political awareness through extra-curricular activities.”

Most administrators agreed that a representative student body would help in smoother functioning of the university by allowing discussion with students regarding reasons for certain decisions, for disseminating these decisions among students; to oversee student activities, societies and their budgets, and to participate in various committees though without any decision making power. The primary argument against decision making power for students was to limit outsiders’ options for influence. Those opposed to Student Unions argued that a number of student societies were already functioning and thus there was no separate need for a Student Union. At Government College University, a student representative body comprising of society presidents, toppers and athletes met the Vice Chancellor once a month and decisions taken in the meeting were implemented. Similarly at Forman Christian College, society presidents met the Rector on a regular basis for consultative sessions. Administrators thus accepted the importance of a student representative voice but were not inclined towards institution wide democratically elected representation.

For administrators, the biggest concern was the affect of Student Union on the academic environment of the institution, specifically agitation and violence. Student’s suggestion to limit violence was a regular election process making unions accountable to the student body, a strict adherence to the defined code of conduct and a functioning disciplinary committee. They took no responsibility for violence arguing that the lack of law and order in educational institutions couldn’t be blamed on students but instead on weak administration quoting various examples where perpetrators were never taken to task. They argued for student representation in the discipline committee to make it more effective, while improving transparency and access to information for student representatives’ accountability.

Some administrators agreed that a weak administration allowed students to create problems either with or without the help of political parties. But they put the responsibility of this weakness on the bureaucracy or political leadership whose support to the administration was based on their own agenda. Principals in some public institutions even owed their position to external elements and thus were very much a part of political maneuverings.

Students accepted agitation as an important basis of power for Student Unions but argued that student agitation was an outcome of a lack of effective representation within the institutional framework. Thus with a proper representative structure in place, resolution of student issues would not require a protest. However it was suggested that the constitution make stringent conditions for the provision of any strike such as a signed petition by 2/3 of the general student body.

“… student agitation was an outcome of a lack of effective representation within the institutional framework.”

Discussing the eligibility criteria in the Act, the administrators argued that it should be institution based though a general consensus existed in including grades in the criteria, while students argued that any full time student not on probation should be able to run for elections. Regarding Advisory Council, the administrators argued that teachers could also play an important role as neutral arbiters between students and administration as some were respected by students and could help resolve issues, but there was no consensus on faculty members playing an official role as advisors to the Student Union. However a consensus existed that the Advisory Committee should not include any outsiders – parents or civil society.

As a parting thought, an administrator suggested to change the concept of Student Union such that it assumes a cooperative rather than an adversarial role between the students and administration.

“.. change the concept of Student Union such that it assumes a cooperative rather than an adversarial role between the students and administration.”