Saturday June 25, 2022

We need students’ unions

February 06, 2020

For the current financial year, the government allocated Rs59 billion to the HEC against the demand of Rs103 billion – Rs6 billion less than the previous year.

Major public-sector universities are facing a severe financial crisis and so the vision for quality of education, research, scholarship and the inclusive academic environment seems bleaker.

A week earlier, the vice-Chancellor of the University of Peshawar wrote a letter to the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that, owing to the financial crunch, the university would not be able to pay salaries and pensions to its employees and pensioners. This worsened financial position had been communicated time and again, with a request for a bailout package, disregarding the fact that the same university retains 500 surplus employees.

Before that, the KP Agriculture University and Gomal University, Dera Ismail Khan had also forwarded a similar request to the HEC and the KP government, requesting a bailout package.

After students, who are major stakeholders in terms of finances, the government financial grant plays an important role in keeping public-sector universities running. In the absence of government financial support, universities are continuously increasing their fees, making education more expensive.

Before Zia’s era, all the key decisions – including appointments and fee increases – were also monitored by students’ unions, which were members of universities senates and syndicates. In the absence of students’ unions, education is becoming more expensive and universities are at the verge of ruin.

Similarly, there were reports that the acting VC of a university in Swabi had fired some teachers on the accusation that those teachers had backed students who protested against the same VC for the removal of qualified PhD teachers.

Sadly, many agitating students were threatened not to participate in the agitation, reminding them of their signed affidavits, wherein they agreed not to participate in any “political activity”, and if they participated, the university administration would be at liberty to “rusticate” them. As a result, the students strike came to an end, whereas the removed faculty staff had no other option but to approach the Peshawar High Court.

So why did the students’ strike fail? Although the students strongly stood against the illegal orders of the acting vice-chancellor, in the absence of a legal students’ union, their voice lacked influence. Sadly, these students could not receive legitimate support from students across the country.

Although regretted later on, the HEC had written a letter opposing the restoration of students’ unions, saying it only supported students’ associations for poetry, debate, music and sports. Unfortunately, even the HEC seems to support the perception that, while music and poetry are good for students, politics is polluted.

Ignoring and banning students’ unions is not a solution but a path to further disaster. Perhaps, those sitting in the HEC are also influenced by the Zia school of thought, ignorant of the fact that to safeguard the country’s democratic future our young generation needs political grooming.

Today, our weak democratic institutions are perhaps the reason political activities and consciousness training have been banned in our educational institutions. This despite the fact that, in the past, students’ unions have produced seasoned politicians in this country. We must agree that if higher education is important, then political learning is obligatory for the future of this country.

The opponents of students’ unions still base their argument on the Zia era understanding that students’ unions lead to violence on campus. On the contrary, intolerance has overall increased in our society; this has always led to violence. Therefore, disbanding students’ unions on such pretext would be an injustice to the education and democratic base of the country.

Thus, in every appointment, political interference and personal wishes have been adjusted. The youth should be enriched with free-thinking and critical reasoning and minds that can bring innovative ideas to make the country socio-economically and politically richer.

Countries where higher education has flourished have continuously invested in it. Every researcher is paid a modest amount of fellowship; as a result, their performance and contributions are up to the mark. But, contrary to the international standards, the structure of our higher education system is different. Here even at the PhD level scholars have to bear all their expenses and have also to pay university fees.

In the past, the disbanded students’ unions created organized pressure and were a check on the government for fiddling with the higher education budget. Today, how will our higher education improve when the universities have no funds to pay the salaries of their employees?

Why are our universities not self-sustaining? Perhaps, our higher education has not yet been shaped properly to achieve financial independence, quality of research and education and to offer modest fellowships to researchers in order to contribute to the country’s economic growth.

If we evaluate the current deteriorated financial position of our universities, it becomes clearer that in the absence of proper check and balance by students unions’, every administration – often backed by political forces – has misused their authority and not only illegally recruited employees but also illegally distributed key positions.

The writer is a Peshawar-based lawyer.


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