Pakistan's Experience with Student Unions

Author Name: Ghanwah Ijaz       23 Dec 2019     Society

Student unions, sometimes called student councils, student governments, student associations, or guild of students, are such organisations which indulge students in various productive societal activities and play a significant task in protecting student rights in the premises of an institution and outside. They help students to upgrade their skills by social engagement on campuses.

The purpose of these unions varies country to country, however, universally, the purpose of student unions is to represent fellow students in some fashion. The epitome of a student union is the student and the complications or issues faced by him or her.

Many developed countries like the USA, China, or Australia, have student unions in their respective institutions. In the United Kingdom student unions are encouraged under the Education Act 1994, where the role and purpose of student unions is defined as “promoting the general interest of its members as students”. This limits the students unions to campaign on issues not directly related to their members, i.e. the students.

On the flipside, in India and Pakistan, these unions are politicized and used as pressure groups, termed as “political nursery”. In 1936, the All India Student Federation (AISF) was the only student organisation in the country which was actively involved in the Indian freedom struggle and affiliated with political parties, so it can be said that the culture to manipulate the student unions has been there in the subcontinent, since the colonial period.

Pakistan’s educational performance is a tale of unfulfilled expectations which has caused disaffection and alienation among vast segments of the society. True is the fact that a number of students are harassed, threatened and blackmailed throughout their time in university. The relation between a teacher and his pupil has not remained as sacred as it was generations before; favouritism, nepotism and corruption has paved its way into educational institutions. The recent protests depict a glimpse of the reality, where the confused youth bandwagon a small section of society in propagating their agenda by directing their energies to a more confusing and bogus cause.

Having said that, even on a cursory look it is evident that Pakistan’s experiment with student unions came at a huge cost. The leaders of the unions were hand-picked by political parties due to their blunt, macho and vote-fetching image within the student community vis-à-vis masses.

Many people oppose the idea of student unions, which is also not correct. These unions can play a vital role in demolishing the dictatorship and mafia rule on campuses, raising their voices to improve the hostel, transport and mess facilities. Fee hike is the major issue faced by students in universities, which can be solved if the university authorities involve them in decision-making functionaries. And this can be achieved by encouraging apolitical student unions.

The government is reconsidering the ban on student unions. The authorities must not forget the extremely porous point in time when the University of Karachi and Punjab University were considered the ‘Nine Zero’ of these unions, when the heated debates in parliament opened wrestling grounds for students affiliated to a particular political ideology, when parents used to avoid sending their children, especially daughters, to universities, and when the union leaders were more respected in comparison to their professors.

The South Asian version of student unions is questionable. The government needs to act wisely. Previously, this government came under pressure and endorsed the religious fundamentalist idea by removing economist Atif Mian from the advisory council. The mistake shall not be repeated, the decision of the restoration of student unions shall not be made under pressure since the manifesto of the recent student march is fairly obvious: a) to localize politics and b) to form an alliance with labour and other working groups. The government requires a holistic intervention in the education sector. Let the education systems produce quality citizens and provide better education and a fair academic environment instead of localising politics.

 

The writer is a Research Fellow at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com.