If student unions are bad for education, why are our controlled campuses ranked among the worst in the world?

The unconstitutional wrong of not restoring student unions must now be corrected once and for all.
Updated Nov 29, 2019 09:04am

This Friday on November 29, students from across the country will march to demand the restoration of student unions in Pakistan. The Students Solidarity March is also raising multiple other student concerns, ranging from Higher Education Commission's budget cuts to fee hikes and the administration of hostels, but the question of student unions is central because in many ways it exemplifies the state’s narrow, authoritarian approach towards students and the education system.

The absence of student unions has been catastrophic for Pakistani education, society and politics, yet somehow the status quo is allowed to continue and there is a reluctance to break through the authoritarian sensibilities in society and politics that deem it to be a good thing. It is time that we revisit exactly why this historical mistake took place, what the consequences of that mistake were and why it needs to be rectified.

Student unions are effectively banned in Pakistan for over 35 years now. In most universities, this is enforced by making students sign an affidavit declaring that they will not take part in any political activity on campus.

The current situation that has lasted over 3 decades can be traced back to the ban imposed on student unions during the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq, who, fearful of the growing student resistance against his regime, banned unions across the country on February 9, 1984.

Also read |1984: The murder of Pakistan's student unions

The reason given for the ban was the violence between student groups on campus. Student politics, it was reasoned, was destroying the education system and the only way to fix it was to end the participation of students in politics altogether.

The winning candidates at a student union election at Karachi’s Dow Medical College (1972).
The winning candidates at a student union election at Karachi’s Dow Medical College (1972).

In the three and a half decades that followed, it is this reasoning that has been repeated ad nauseum by those who support the disenfranchisement of students, including the Justice Afzal Zullah-led Supreme Court in 1993. The Supreme Court judgment, while not explicitly banning student unions, is a case study in the ageist suspicions of Pakistani officialdom about student politics. It states that students shouldn’t be allowed to "indulge in politics", without explaining on what basis their right to association (guaranteed by Article 17 of the Constitution of Pakistan) was being infringed.

The judgment then fails to adequately define what indulgence in politics means, leaving that determination to the heads of universities, essentially insulating them from any possibility of student criticism. It also prohibits student representation in university decision-making bodies, strangely claiming that students’ presence affected the dignity of teachers and institutions.

While saying that undefined "legitimate" forms of student activity "may be restored", the judgment essentially synonymised student unions with violence, legitimised the Zia-era clampdown on student politics, and established the practice of universities imposing the so-called ‘non-political’ affidavits on students, virtually closing the door on student unions for decades.

The question of violence

The popular notion that student unions are inherently violent is of course, utterly perverse and divorced from reality. Student unions are simply an institution — much like Parliament — in which students from different organisations are democratically elected to debate and represent student concerns. In most of the best universities the world over, student unions are a normal, productive part of educational life without much disruption. Yet, in Pakistan, authorities argue that student safety and campus peace somehow depend on the absence of unions.

The first clue of the flimsiness of this logic lies in the history of armed campus violence — the weaponisation of campus politics was in itself a state project designed to target progressive student leaders starting 1979, the early years of the Zia dictatorship. As arms started to flow in to fight the communists in Afghanistan, the regime also took the fight to Pakistani universities by arming notoriously violent right-wing outfits like the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba's Thunder Squad to target progressive student leaders. Later on, the regime used the very violence it had fuelled on campuses as an excuse to do away with student politics altogether.

As observers from that period have pointed out, campus violence actually accelerated after Zia's ban as student politics degenerated. Freed of the need to answer to campus electorates, the mostly right-wing student groups patronised by the regime took to physical coercion to establish their dominance and control over student bodies. Much like mainstream politics, student politics in public universities devolved from the intense ideological and electoral competition of the 1960s and 1970s to a personalised arena of competing fiefdoms, dominated by strongmen who rule by dint of their wealth and power.

From the highs of the anti-Ayub movement of the 1960s, student politics became weak, conservative and quietist, unconcerned with issues of collective or public concern. The closing of the student mind was further achieved through education policies and curricula that sought to stamp out critical questioning and instead induce in students an unbending loyalty to the regime, the supra-structure, and its ‘ideological identity’. Ideological conformism on campuses was reinforced by hounding out leftist teachers, replacing them with conservative hardliners, and introducing retrogressive content into the curriculum.

Students organising before the Nov 29 march. — Photo by Layla Kiran
Students organising before the Nov 29 march. — Photo by Layla Kiran

Gradually, from the charged campus debates that had once taken place about the education system, economics, politics and governance, the sterile campus discourse that remained became limited to questions of morality and culture, fuelled by narratives of civilisational clash in the age of the War on Terror and curricula filled with militarism and religious nationalism.

This was also accompanied by the largely unregulated expansion of private education and the increasing treatment of education as a commodity, available to student consumers who could pay. The neglected, resource-starved public sector simmered with resentment, particularly in smaller provinces like Sindh and Balochistan, kept under control through the deployment of security forces on campuses to prevent any possibility of student resistance.

Reproducing educational mediocrity

In essence, authorities achieved what the ban had intended — to produce pliant, docile student bodies, and controlled, depoliticised campuses. This, the authorities had long argued, would allow students to pursue an education unhindered by distraction.

Strange then that in the years since the ban and a continuous absence of student unions, the quality of higher education in Pakistan has only plummeted: in 2018, the Quacquarelli Symonds Higher Education System rankings found Pakistan’s higher education set up to be the worst out of all countries surveyed. In university rankings, no Pakistani university features in the first 200 universities in the world, while only three are ranked within the first 800.

Violence and intolerance have also become a constant feature of campus life — whether in the shape of the hegemony of outfits like IJT or through the presence and continued interference of security forces on campuses, which have resulted in everything from terrorism charges to enforced disappearances of students. Between 2013-19, Scholars at Risk documented dozens of attacks at Pakistani campuses, including 14 targeted attacks on scholars, leading to over 115 deaths and hundreds of injuries.

An education system that had once produced intellectual giants like Abdus Salam and Mahbub ul Haque is now famous for campuses where mobs lynch student activists like Mashal Khan over false blasphemy allegations at the urging of vested interests.

Clearly, the ban has not produced the quality education or the peace it was claimed it would bring. What then, did it actually result in and what can be done about it?

The crisis of education accountability

Today, there is a clear and enormous lack of institutional accountability in the education system. The absence of student unions has meant officials are impervious to pressures for performance and reform from below, which has allowed a culture of cronyism, nepotism, and corruption to run rampant. It is this culture of administrative impunity that is reflected in the periodic reports of financial corruption at universities revealed in the press; in the failure of institutions to provide adequate student housing to the thousands of fee-paying students they admit from across the country; in the crimes committed by administration and security officials through the secret filming, harassment and blackmailing of (mostly female) students, among many others.

The lack of accountability in education has also translated into a broader neglect of education at a policy level, as the HEC budget has deteriorated as a proportion of GDP over the years. Governments have repeatedly siphoned off funds from HEC to high-visibility infrastructure projects, hurting important programmes relied on by students and faculty, from accommodation and transport to research and training. Tellingly, the number of scholars studying abroad for PhDs has shrunk to less than a quarter of HEC targets in recent years.

Explore: The case for student unions

Unions had allowed students a reasonable amount of collective power — they are meant to negotiate student concerns from fee to hostel accommodation to broader policies that affect them. Today, any student who dares speak out against administrative neglect, incompetence or corruption is silenced through threats of expulsion or rustication, or more recently, even through charges of terrorism and sedition.

The reintroduction of campus democracy would end this culture of impunity by creating legal protections for students to hold administrations and governments accountable. It would enable a culture of debate about education problems and create mechanisms of oversight through which budgets, policies and regulations can be evaluated to assess whether they are serving student interests. This is not just something students need — it is necessary for the overall health of our education system.

Learning outcomes

The most over-used phrase with respect to students in Pakistan is that ‘they should focus on studies instead of politics’, implying that political activism is detrimental to academic performance. The truth is, this perception has little connection to reality. It does not explain, for instance, why the best universities in the world, from Harvard to Oxford to even JNU (India’s highest-ranked university) in our neighborhood have highly unionised student bodies. Nor does it explain why our depoliticised, controlled campuses are ranked among the worst in the world, with little recognition or accreditation for most of our universities beyond our borders.

Students at a mobilisation session for the Students Solidarity March. — Photo by Layla Kiran
Students at a mobilisation session for the Students Solidarity March. — Photo by Layla Kiran

The research on the relationship between student politics and educational outcomes tells us the truth is the opposite of the dominant perception in Pakistan. A 2010 study at the University of Iowa found that student political leadership was associated with positive growth in multiple learning outcomes, including cognitive complexity, knowledge acquisition and application, and interpersonal and intrapersonal competence. This, according to the researchers, was because student political activism provided students with "opportunities to encounter situations and people that may motivate and encourage learning about oneself, working with others different from themselves, notions of civic responsibility and devising solutions to problems in their community and in society".

Multiple other studies from around the world confirm this — student activism is good for student learning and should form an essential component of a holistic education. Creating space and legal protection for non-violent politics and activism on campuses will enable millions of Pakistani students to expand their ways of thinking, learning and acting in constructive ways that could be of enormous use to themselves and their communities after they graduate.

Political leadership and democratic accountability

The absence on student unions has contributed to a gaping crisis of political leadership in the country, which continues to be dominated by a small set of landed and moneyed elites. A 2013 study on parliamentarians found that in 2008 over 53% of National Assembly representatives from Punjab alone were from dynastic political families. The explanation? The weakness of political organisations and internal democratic processes within political parties ensure that the primary criterion for electoral nomination is an individual candidate’s ‘electability’ in their constituency, often premised solely on their wealth and power.

Without an active arena of on-campus politics behind them, student wings of nearly all political parties are weak, ineffective bodies excluded from decision-making within parties. Without organised and representative student and labour wings, parties themselves remain weak and beholden to the whims of dominant social segments, forever concerned with them switching allegiance if they make decisions that threaten their economic and political interests. The result is a mainstream politics that consists almost entirely of intra-elite struggles for power, with policies and debates that have little connection with the lives of ordinary people.

Restoring student unions will be an enormous push for democratic expansion in Pakistan. Student unions will serve as vehicles for young, educated middle- and working-class men and women to enter politics, they will strengthen the organisational structures of political parties and will increase the pressure on parties to provide representation to the young, the non-landed, and the non-propertied sections of their population.

Pluralism, non-violence and inter-ethnic harmony

Student unions had allowed a recognised space for democratic debate and non-violent electoral competition on campus, which meant students from varied ethno-linguistic and religious backgrounds could form coalitions around common ideas — as they did in the diverse array of independent student organisations that existed. Back in the day, a single student organisation like NSF would include students from all provinces, regions and linguistic and religious groups in the country, united under the egalitarian principles it stood for. Even between different organisations, there was a general acceptance and tolerance of each other’s existence, notwithstanding the occasional confrontation.

Students during a mobilisation drive for the Nov 29 march. — Photo by Layla Kiran
Students during a mobilisation drive for the Nov 29 march. — Photo by Layla Kiran

When this space was snatched away, the ties that it facilitated for students across ethnic and religious lines also withered. The informal student politics of today (such as the apolitical ethnic council structures in place in some varsities as substitutes for unions) is rigidly divided along ethnic or religious lines. The ethnically-segregated structure of the councils often serves to disincentivise political and ideological cooperation among students, with council leaders inclined towards highlighting cultural differences to protect their own identity-based spheres of authority. This also results in periodic ethnic clashes, enabling administrations to prey on existing fault-lines of identity to divide students.

More on this | 'Exhausted all other means, driven to the streets': Students, others weigh in on motivation to march

Reintroducing unions with the right of association will re-create a space for students from different cultural backgrounds to discuss and debate their differences peacefully, find common ground for cooperation and focus their energies once again on collective student issues rather than solely questions of identity-based difference. While students will still be free to form associations around their identities, that will no longer be the sole option available to them. Unlike the fears raised by university administrators, this will actually help reduce violence around ethnicity and religion.

Towards a more substantive democracy

The ban on student unions and the related attempts to control students’ minds and expression, was a massive historical error that has been catastrophic for Pakistan. It has fundamentally affected Pakistani society, depriving entire generations of the capacities to think and act in productive, conscious and constructive ways. It has turned our universities into sterile, suffocating prisons bereft of creativity and innovation where students are treated as expendable commodities and no critical thought or debate is allowed.

It has led to a gaping crisis of political leadership and governance, depriving the political arena of society’s most educated and energetic members and leaving politics dominated by moneyed elites concerned solely with their self-preservation. It has exacerbated our differences, leaving young people with few spaces where they can relate to each other and think and act collectively. The stifling of intellectual freedom and closing of students’ minds has weakened our economy, starving it of scientific and technological innovation that has fostered the growth of better-educated societies and depriving it of a high-quality, well-organised labour force. This must change. Our decrepit education system must be overhauled with students at its centre, as recognised citizen-stakeholders in its decision-making and reform. The unconstitutional wrong of not restoring student unions must now be corrected once and for all.


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