Revival of students unions with strong political affiliations does not augur well for academic peace, but there is no alternative
By Gulnaz Nisar Bhutta
The government's decision to revive student unions has given rise to a lot of questions and doubts in almost all the concerned quarters. Most importantly, all the stakeholders, especially parents and university managements, are apprehensive that the interference of political parties in union's activities will lead to violence and disruption of academic activities; easy flow of money and arms; political support to racketeers and professional student leaders; and, consequently, a further decline in the standard of education.
However, in interviews conducted by this scribe, many students and teachers also said unions provided a systematic and orderly solution to discipline on-campus political activities of students. Moreover, unions are important to nurture future leadership by providing a training ground for aspiring politicians and promoting democratic norms in the younger generation.
Universities are expected to be characterised by a certain standard of research and higher education. Politicised or less politicised, unions generally provide support and services to students and assist them in working towards the development and betterment of their university / institution almost everywhere around the world. The situation in Pakistan is, however, different. In the current scenario, most students prefer to stay away from politics. For most, politics is not a good career option; neither does it solve any of the problems faced by the country. Moreover, many of the mainstream political parties exploit the undirected and emotional force of youth to further their narrow interests by employing student politicians to create pressure groups.
Politically motivated student groups and unions supported by their strong political affiliations have mostly caused trouble for university administrations, faculty members and other students too. However, banning student unions entirely could never be a solution to any of the problems related to academic peace. The last 25 years of student politics without unions have done more damage than good to our institutions of higher learning, as well as to the standard of education.
Absence of student unions gave way to on-campus party politics that led to violence, proliferation of arms and deterioration in the standard of education. As a result, our institutions of higher learning were divested of the educational environment that produces freethinkers, leaders and change-makers. Consequently, we have a generation of apolitical, apathetic and self-centered youth, which is incapable of thinking beyond the immediate concerns and myopic vision of being able to secure a 9-5 job, or settling down somewhere abroad.
Most of the students have a dilapidated view of politics and they loath the present leadership. Unions, ideally speaking, produce student leaders who would lead the country in the future. On the contrary, party politics have greatly disillusioned our young lot with the current political scene and the leadership in the country. And this process, over the years, has created a large population of apolitical people who just believe in meaningless criticising rather than getting constructive ideas across. We have more than enough of critics, but we need people to get to work with all their enthusiasm to cleanse what they call dirty.
Student unions provide the ultimate training and breeding ground for our future leadership. In addition, they provide practice ground for democratic thinking and governance. The closure of the unions, back in 1984, triggered the detrimental process of depoliticisation of our youths. The question that whether political groups should be allowed or disallowed on campuses, or whether unions should be allowed to have political associations, is not only difficult, but also convoluted.
Political interference or political associations of students have its pro and cons, but at the same time it must be realised that it is impossible to exclude politics from the campuses. Students need to gather around causes and ideologies in order to vanguard their rights; their right to association should not be defied. Simultaneously, links between national political parties and their student factions need to be regulated, but an imprecise, incomplete, vague and arbitrarily concocted solution will not do.
The majority of students – who are badly disillusioned with politics and the government's bill of students' regulations – both demand and suggest that campuses should be kept clear from politics. However, this is disrespect for politics; disrespect for democracy and disrespect for the students' right to association that is enshrined in the constitution. At the same time, it is also important that student politics is not hazy, and is not vulnerable to the influence of 'professional' politicians who hijack genuine student movements and protests. Students should be allowed to team up ideologically in student parties, free from any political interference.
It is hoped that the revival of student unions will bring back the disenchanted and marginalised student groups (the left groups, the cultural associations, study circles, etc) into the system. It is important to have these entities, because compared with the currently politically active lot, they have a wider acceptability among the general student community. It is also important that our youth unites against their destinies being written by the ill-willed political conspiracies.
Besides, politically motivated students are not the only problem: at times, valid problems and concerns of students are left unheard, which ultimately leads to violence and unrest in an academic institution. As we all know, university managements and administrations often show a laidback attitude in finding a solution to students' problems. Institutional peace and smooth running of academic activities is impossible to ensure without solving longstanding problems of our educational institutions.
The end of the influence of political parties and pressure groups is a massive task, but improvement in students-teachers and students-administration relationship and cooperation through restoration of student unions can be the first steps towards betterment. Students, administration and teachers should work in unison towards the development of their institutions; otherwise, what we see as a result is the deterioration and derailment of the education system and dysfunctional universities.