News & Views

Student Union – A Prerequisite for Democracy and Good Governance

The state resorted to torture when students in Punjab protested this week for the administration of online examinations. Scores of protesting students were arrested with First Investigation Reports (FIRs) reportedly registered against them. These vicious acts of coercion and crackdown on students emphasize one thing – the revival of the student union. 

The demand and student protests for the online administration of examination carries weight for the simple reason that the curriculum taught online should be assessed online. This demand is much rooted in theory and research on educational assessment. According to the literature, for authentic educational assessment, the assessment tools (achievement test, etc.) should always be aligned with the experience given to the learners.  

It is a fact that students have been protesting for their rights throughout the length and breadth of the country since long. Unfortunately, they have failed to translate their agitation into a result-oriented collective struggle. Different protests are held at different times and places but without building cohesion among themselves at a larger stage.

Be it the anti-student policies of the Pakistan Medical Commission (PMC), discrimination in medical seats for Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Balochistan, enforcement of associate degree programs, or the recent wave of student protests in Punjab and Balochistan, they all make us feel about one thing – connecting the struggle on a larger stage through the revival of the student union as the topmost priority.

A collective student movement is all the more important to do away with the much precarious situation that is in making because of World Bank dictated policies of the Higher Education Commission (HEC). Moreover, a representative student body at the national level can have the capacity and rigor to fight anti-education decisions e.g. frequent fee hikes, lack of hostel facilities and scholarships, etc.

In Pakistan, a narrative has been built for a long time that student unions are responsible for violence at campus. Hence, political activities should not be allowed as colleges and universities are meant only for education. Those propagating and borrowing this narrative to discourage student politics at the campus actually shut their eyes from the real motive behind the promotion of violence.

In Pakistan, the student union was banned during military rule of General Zia ul Haq. Violence was engineered and promoted to use it as a justification to ban student union. This was a sponsored project undertaken to arm his own politically allied students to suppress the democratic attitudes in students, youth, and political workers who could potentially resist dictatorial rule in the country.

A question arises here which needs to be addressed.  Why is our society as a whole divided on the question of student union? This question has a simple answer because Pakistani society has been systematically depoliticized for the last many decades. 

Student unions act as nurseries for a vibrant democratic system With their presence in colleges and universities they also act as a bulwark against any dictatorial rule. Thus banning them was important for undemocratic forces to prolong their rule in the country.

The politicization of society is connected with a process in which people belonging to pluralistic backgrounds interact and learn to co-exist.  Educational institutions esp. colleges and universities provide this pluralistic environment laying a foundation for the formation of a truly democratic society. In this regard,  what John Dewey has said comes true, “Democracy must be reborn in each generation and education is its midwife”.

This suggests the need for student engagement in political socialization as an integral part of their education esp. at the university level. Such an environment will create space for activities related to rights awareness, promotion of political thought, and betterment of the whole system. 

Unfortunately, education and educational institutions have been brutally used to shape a non-democratic and non-political society in Pakistan. Consequently, a major part of the population of Pakistan is not politically socialized and least bothered to find political solutions to their problems. 

Today at the time of admission, students are required to sign an affidavit pledging not to involve in student politics at the campus. Submitting to such an undemocratic and anti-student rights move is not something to wonder about because society as a whole has been taught to be submissive and accept whatever comes to them. 

People are oblivion of the very concept of citizenship. Apolitical environment for Years has left them without a sense of self-dignity- thereby leading to the cultivation of attitudes characterized by fear and hypocrisy.

One may ask another question,  “who are the people that do not want the revival of student union? Who are the people that do not want politics at the grassroots level?  Who are these people that want to confine politics to the political elite?

Addressing these questions is vital to understand the question of the student union, more importantly, to know why our society lacks democratic, revolutionary, or nationalist struggles despite gross violations and denial of social, political, and economic rights of the people.

The history of student politics in Pakistan informs that it was the students only who fought fearlessly for democracy and rights.  With this background in view, the ruling class will never provide any independent political space for students both at the campus and outside. 

The government and media equate activism rather with a futile craze, stupidity, and emotionalism on part of the students. In contrast, compromise and silence are considered a demonstration of maturity, leadership, and ingenuity. 

There is no harm if kids fear darkness, catastrophe if adolescents fear the light.

If student union is so bad and such a dangerous thing, why American and European educational institutions have functional and active student unions? Why do they have high-quality educational administration, teaching-learning, and research? Why are their colleges and universities progressing by leaps and bounds?  In contrast, colleges and universities in Pakistan, despite the ban on student unions, cast an obsolete, outdated, and shattered picture.

Our policymakers and rulers need to understand that student union is a prerequisite for the progress and development of democratic, political and a vibrant educational system. Only revival of student union can land us an era of change in the social and political culture.

Student Union is a productive and positive part of college or university life. With its revival, the student union will play its role in the promotion of academic freedom, free speech, and critical thinking in colleges and universities. Its existence is also vital for accountability within the institution. Moreover, the revival of student unions will be a new dawn for an apolitical society like Pakistan. 

These views were originally expressed in Urdu by Dr. Asghar Dashti, a professor of International Relations. has translated and built on the view with due permission from Dr. Dashti for its readers.

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I am a social activist and educationist. I write on politics, culture, education and economy.

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