By the look of things, everyone appears to want and wish for the restoration of student unions at universities. But many vice chancellors, the officials who will eventually be dealing with these unions if restored, have some reservations. Arsalan Haider finds out what these are and in what way do the VCs want the unions back on campus.

round the world, student unions are considered one of the key ways students can make the transition from the carefree life of teenage years at schools and colleges to becoming responsible adults. For decades, student unions have given hundreds of future leaders to the world, trained thousands in the art of debate and discourse, provided students around the world a platform raise a voice for their rights and force governments into action, and even played their part in changing the course of many nation’s histories.Despite possessing so much good in them, student unions remain banned in Pakistan since 1984. It was the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq that slapped the ban on student unions, blaming them for politicizing campuses and engaging in violence. Since then, several student bodies and organizations exist on campuses across Pakistan, but without a legal status, authority and validation from varsity administrations.

In November last year, students under the banner of Progressive Student’s Collective held massive rallies across the country demanding rights for students, including restoration of student unions. The rallies forced the initiation of an intense debate on whether the unions should return to campuses. Several government ministers, including the prime minister himself, expressed their backing for the restoration of unions, albeit with a regulatory framework.But the furor also raised another much talked about issue regarding student unions: of whether they actually provide students a platform to present their problems or just become puppets of those who wield actual power? 

While students might be rejoicing over the thought of resurrection of unions at campuses, vice chancellors, who are responsible for maintaining discipline and running the administrative affairs of universities, seem not really happy with the idea.For this exclusive story, Academia Magazine talked to various VCs of public universities, discovering that the top varsity officials had, at best, reservations about the idea of bringing student unions back.

Good Omen

Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad, the VC at University of Sargodha, opined that restoring student unions with a firm code of conduct would, of course, be a good step for the country. “Student unions will provide more opportunities to students for critical dialogue, thereby acting as a nursery for national leadership”.He said Pakistan was currently facing a leadership crisis at various levels. “Hence, we must nurture opportunities that pave the way for the emergence of a dynamic and productive leadership from amongst university youth.”But in the same breath, Dr Ishtiaq warned that things could also get out of hand. “Keeping in view Pakistan’s political culture and sociocultural situation, restoration of student unions will definitely disturb the peaceful academic environment of universities,” VC said. He said the prime reason was the involvement of external political parties in student unions at universities. “Then, there are regional and religious groups that get engaged in into campus politics.” 

Student unions will provide more opportunities to students for critical dialogue, thereby acting as a nursery for national leadership, University of Sargodha VC Dr Ishtiaq Ahmad

Dr Ishtiaq observed that unfortunately, many “non-student” elements that had nothing to do with academics dominated student politics in universities and students get exploited for their ulterior motives. “As a result, violence creeps into campuses and the overall environment at universities becomes fraught with terror, fear, exploitation and torture. Restoration of unions without working out a sustainable code of conduct will be detrimental to peaceful environment at universities,” he added. The VC said restoration of unions should be gradual and there must be a code of conduct for these bodies. “Most importantly, unions must be totally isolated from external mainstream politics,” he said.

Dr Niaz Ahmad currently mans the top slot at the University of the Punjab, the country’s largest and oldest seat of learning. In his brief comment on the issue, Dr Niaz said PU would toe the government’s line. “If the government decides to allow elections for electing students unions, PU will also hold elections.”

 

New Avenues

National College of Arts (NCA) Principal Dr Murtaza Jaffari also believes that there is nothing wrong in restoring unions at university campuses. However, he said the government must also maximize sports activities, open debates on various issues, conduct seminars, discussions, and workshops on national and international issues. “Other forums should also be made available to engage students in order that they keep away from political activities.”

There is nothing wrong in restoring unions at varsities, but other forums should also be made available to engage students so that they keep away from political activities, NCA Principal Dr Murtaza Jaffar

Punjab Higher Education Commission (PHEC) former chairman Professor Dr Nizamuddin was of the view that student unions were very active in Pakistan in the 1960s and “I was also part of unions at that time”. “There is no doubt that politics was involved in the union culture and all political parties had their own student wings. Student leaders were also exploited and misused by all political parties for their own interests,” he added.Dr Nizam said times had changed drastically over the years and the environment of universities was entirely different in present times. “If someone wants to restore student unions in universities and colleges, then there is a dire need to set up a mechanism to keep politics and political parties away from these unions.”

PHEC former chairman Professor Dr Nizamuddin says there is a dire need to set up a mechanism to keep politics and political parties away from student unions

 

Takeaway

Human societies have evolved only because they eventually agreed to stick to certain rules of civility for the common good of the species. Just like every human being has his or her pros and cons, students unions have both advantages and disadvantages. It is also true that in Pakistan’s case, the majority of positives that the unions ever possessed were overshadowed by the violence that was fed into them by forces that exploited them for their own vested interests.The right to associate is a basic democratic right of every citizen. And a regulatory framework/mechanism ensures that that right is protected from powers that aim to use it for their own gains, either through fear, wealth or force. The VCs might be hinting at similar reservations when they talk of framework and regulation of student unions to keep political forces at bay. But with the power to make those laws and working rules resting squarely with the political leadership, it is unlikely that politics ever remain out of student-union equation.

Additional commentary by Azam Mahmood

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