Sindh Students’ Union Restoration Act has been rightly hailed as a milestone achieved by the PPP-led provincial government and other political stakeholders. The revival of student unions after nearly four decades is a crucial step towards the democratisation of universities in the province, turning them into a hub of ideological and political grounding of youth. However, the law, besides giving students mandatory representation in the university’s administrative bodies and anti-harassment committees, gives carte blanche to higher educational institutions to come up with the modalities of electing student unions.
It remains to be seen how they respond to this shift in campus administration and environment.
Notwithstanding the rules and regulations decided by universities for electing their respective student representative bodies, the process would no doubt enable the democratisation of the varsity’s decision-making process. In the absence of any legitimate student representation, a number of students’ concerns eg change in fee structure and provision of facilities in hostels could not be brought up effectively before university administrations and hence remained unresolved. Understandably, the election of student unions on campuses will aid varsity administrations to better govern campuses and resolve students’ long-standing issues. Moreover, student-led activities would pave the way for increased debate and interaction on campuses where the intellectual environment has been paralysed on account of curbs on free expression and the polarisation of politics. Under these circumstances, varsity administrations will have to evolve so that they can include students’ perspectives in their attempt to maintain a healthy academic environment without ceding to pressure from political quarters whose perverse influence has grown over the years.
NUMBER of student-led events in several places including Islamabad, Lahore, Swat and Hyderabad were held recently to demand the restoration of student unions that had been banned on Feb 9, 1984, by the Zia regime.
Almost four decades later, there may be reason to hope that some of the damage can be reversed with the approval by a standing committee of the Sindh Assembly of a bill calling for the election or formation of student unions in public and private higher educational institutions.
According to the bill’s provisions, a union would have seven to 11 elected members with representation in the higher educational institution’s syndicate and anti-harassment committee. However, it is uncertain if and when the bill becomes law. Over the years, the closure of what were once vibrant nurseries of democracy has weakened the political culture.
Student-led activities and representation helped educated youth interact, share ideas and develop intellectually, socially and academically in preparation for their future leadership role. Many seasoned politicians today learned their skills on campuses brimming with ideas and activities. But the ban created a political vacuum and is partially responsible for the present crisis of governance and democratic culture that we see in the country today.
For their part, political parties should demonstrate their sincerity in developing a grassroots leadership and pledge to rein in their student wings that have operated on campuses with disturbing impunity for decades — that is, they should stop waging their turf wars on university campuses.
Political parties in other provinces should follow suit and strive to create an enabling environment for the revival of student unions.
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