Pakistan Needs To Legitimise And Revive Students Unions In Universities

Historically, student unions were progressive and nurseries of academicians, philosophers, politicians, and scientists. In contrast, when the government imposed a ban on student unions in 1984, educational campuses became breeding grounds for violence and extremism.

In November last year, students took out rallies in over 50 districts against Prime Minister Imran Khan for not keeping his promise to empower youth and urban student unions, doing which was one of the main slogans of Imran Khan’s election campaign. In fact, the formation of unions and associations are among students’ constitutional rights, as mentioned in Articles 19 and 19 (A) of the Constitution of Pakistan. It follows, then, that the ban on students’ politics or freedom of speech is not only against democracy but also against the Constitution of Pakistan. Thus, reviving student unions will not only produce intellectual leaders but will also improve our present antiquated educational system.

There are many detrimental effects of banning student unions. Not only has it deprived students of critical and progressive thinking, but the ban has also turned them toward extremist activities. Independent analysis, interpretation, and open-mindedness are the key elements of critical and progressive thinking, but students are not allowed even to discuss political ideologies or take part in political activities inside universities. Prior to joining a university, students have to sign affidavits which bar them from taking part in political activities. How can they develop the important skills of independent thinking under such draconian conditions?

According to a report published by IOWA University, student political leadership is associated with positive growth in multiple learning outcomes, including cognitive complexity, knowledge acquisition, and interpersonal and intrapersonal competitiveness. Student unions or associations organise debates and extracurricular activities, which have all but vanished in Pakistan due to the ban on student organisations, with the direct result that it has led to a rise in intolerance and extremism in educational campuses.

Progressive student unions produce future leaders, who then contribute towards educational development, economic development, and building a positive image of the country. Student leaders raise their voices against states' unfair policies, as exemplified by many students from Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. For instance, Umair Khalid, an Indian student leader from Jawaharlal Nehru University, has always been vocal against BJP’s unfair policies, like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Another JNU student, Kanhiya Kumar, has emerged as a prominent politician in India. And there are many examples in the history of the world, where student unions have yielded intellectual leaders to society. These examples give strength to the argument that student unions are essential for the political and social development of Pakistan.

In our specific context, student unions are crucial for uplifting the dilapidated educational system of Pakistan because its current education system is based on a rote learning system. Students hardly study books other than those in their syllabuses. According to a recent survey carried out by Gallup and Gilani Pakistan, 3 in 4 Pakistanis (75 percent) claim not to read any books at all; only 9 percent are avid readers. Pakistani universities are not producing intellectual citizens. Instead, more often than not, they merely produce machines who lack critical thinking skills. Amidst such a time of crisis, Pakistan needs more student unions that can organise debates, study circles, quiz competitions, cultural events, drama nights, and many more healthy activities. In this way, students will be motivated to learn more and to read something outside their syllabus. In brief, these unions will foment a healthy environment inside campuses, which will promote progressive learning and active participation among students.

In conclusion, the PTI government should remove the ban on student unions. The notion that they are violent is divorced from reality. Student unions are the same as the parliament, where a diverse body of students is democratically elected to debate and represent students' concerns. Student unions are also part of the world’s best universities, from Harvard to Oxford to JNU. Student unions are not only a good representative of their members’ countries but also actively help strengthen democracy. To reach that level, it is mandatory for students to have played leadership roles at their respective country's universities. It is quite the need of the hour for Pakistan to legitimise and revive its student unions.