THE recent march in Lahore, led by the Progressive Students Collective, illustrates the urgent call from Pakistan’s youth to revive student unions. This was just one example of a generation demanding not only representation but also solutions to systemic issues plaguing educational institutions: harassment on campuses, especially of female students, the absence of effective anti-harassment committees, and the unequal treatment of students in university policies. These grievances, coupled with broader sociopolitical concerns such as enforced disappearances, inflation, and high fees, underscore the multifaceted role student unions can play. It is evident that while the Sindh Students’ Union Restoration Act and similar initiatives mark significant progress, the challenge lies in ensuring these unions operate effectively and autonomously. Universities must balance integrating student voices into administrative decisions, while safeguarding against external political influences. The concerns raised by the students — free education, fair representation in decision-making bodies, and equitable treatment in campus policies — reveal the potential of student unions to address issues beyond academics. They can act as catalysts for societal change, fostering a culture of debate, tolerance, and democratic engagement.
However, as discussions around the revival of student unions progress, it is crucial to heed past lessons. The historical misuse of student bodies by political factions, leading to campus violence and suppression of free expression, must not be repeated. A code of conduct, agreed upon by all stakeholders, is essential to ensure that student unions prioritise welfare and democratic values over political agendas. The revival of student unions is more than a legislative or administrative decision: it is a response to a clarion call from the youth. It is about empowering a generation to shape not only their educational environment but also the future of the nation. As Pakistan stands at a crossroads, the revival of student unions could be a step towards nurturing a politically aware, socially responsible, and democratically engaged youth.
Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2023