Without students’ involvement, it would be very hard to devise a working and productive mechanism for governance of universities
Students are an integral part of a university governance system and without their involvement no coherent or comprehensive governance system which delivers can be realised. Student representation at all tiers is not just critical for their own development, it is also essential because the university’s primary constituents are students and so without their involvement it would be very hard to devise a working and productive mechanism for governance.
It is generally said that Oxford and Cambridge universities--the oldest institutions of higher learning in the English-speaking world, are slow to change. While that might be the case to an extent, they have changed enough to allow student representation at almost all levels of governance. For example, when I was in Oxford, the elected student leaders of the undergraduates and graduates were both part of the governing body of the college and as such had a voice in how the college was run.
Furthermore, the central university also included the student union representatives on committees and proactively sought their input and suggestions on important decisions. While this level of involvement was and is not sufficient, yet even the current extent exhibits that even these slow to change and traditional seats of learning do recognise the important role of student participation and input in the governance of a university.
In Pakistan, there is no university where there is any mechanism for student input in the governance of the university. In fact, it seems that most universities are scared of student involvement, and actively discourage it. This reality has created a very lopsided mechanism for university governance where the main part of a university -- its students -- is missing from each and every discussion. In fact, since bureaucrats run a large number of universities, even the voice of the academics is muted in governance and so largely what we have are mere skeleton universities which simply ‘run’ without achieving or even caring to achieve any of its higher goals and objectives. No wonder then Pakistani universities are largely failing to produce any thinkers, inventors, and other high achieving people.
The basic building blocks of student involvement in the governance of a university are student societies and student government itself. While some universities allow for subject or interest specific societies, none of them permit an elected student government. Even Forman Christian College, modelled after the American liberal arts colleges where student governments are integral, once only toyed with the idea of a student government and abandoned it after just one year even after it had only appointed, and not elected, a student body president.
Without an elected student government in universities it is impossible to get the voice of the students heard, for their grievances to be addressed, and for the university to develop into a holistic and student centric institution. The undergraduate years are the most formative years for a student and a person. This is where they are finally adults for the first time, free to chose what they want to study and learn (well theoretically at least!), and are able to critically think about their future.
The university is the place where most of their first experiences also occur, in terms of career trajectories, interpersonal relationships, and even love life! The university is also the breeding ground for future politicians, bureaucrats and generals, and so it is essential that democratic and inclusive experiments at the university level are done so that not only are these values inculcated in the students but that they also gain experience of working with them.
Thus it is essential that at the university level there is a student government where regular (usually yearly) elections are held for president and the various other portfolios. It is the duty of the university to ensure that these elections are free and fair, that there is no rigging, intimidation, and violence, and most important of all, that all students are aware of who and what they are voting for. Clear manifestoes, hustings, and campaigning must be a part of such an initiative. This experience, done within the limited bounds of the university, will then become the training ground for budding politicians. And it will be the experience of these elections and how they are run, which will form the basic experience for these prospective politicians on which they will build on in later years.
Hence, rather than being scared of student governments and elections, universities must eagerly foster and nurture them since they are the best training laboratories for future politicians in the country. Such an election is also important for the electorate as such a limited election and then the student government’s running itself will enable the student electorate to discern how to vote in the country. It will help them focus on issues, develop local accountability measures and also discern between politicians. A student body election is in fact a microcosm of the whole country and so it is essential that no university shy away from it.
After the student body president has been elected in a free and fair election he or she must be given power and responsibilities. One of the biggest pitfalls in such experiments, though there have been very few recently in Pakistan, is that after there is a student body president, that person has no power, no authority and no input. This not only disillusions the office holder but also undermines the whole process and the principles which underpin it. Most students then simply translate this experience to the country and view their politicians as powerless, inept, and useless.
Thus, it is essential that once elected, the student government needs to be empowered. Together with this, the student government must be democratic and accountable too. All the other office bearers need to have responsible roles, and all officers need to be accountable to the students through a student council or senate. This accountability process is all the more critical in a country like Pakistan where there is usually no oversight at all.
A responsible and authoritative student government is a great aid in the running of the university. Contrary to administration fears, the fact that there is student body president representing the views of the student at governance forums enables the university administration to keeps its hand on the pluse of the student body. It also helps them understand the concerns of the students in an organised manner and respond to them in a timely manner.
The fear that one student body president on university governance forums will miraculously take over the whole university is simply irrational and bizarre, since it is quite impossible and simply incredible. There is no actual harm in including student voices in the decision making processes of the university and in fact such a voice can only aid and strength the process.
In including student representation the university must also be careful of tokenism. It is just not sufficient that the student body president should be included in some committees; student representation, however small, must be present at all levels: at the highest level with the provost and deans when the academic side of the university is being discussed, at the finance level where decisions about budgetary allocations are being done, at the level of infrastructure development, hostels, cafeteria and the like, in the hiring of faculty, in the university grievance and harassment processes, etc. etc.
Students are affected by each and every one of these decision-making bodies and so their voice must be part of the process. Silencing the voice of students not only inhibits the holistic development of students at a university, but also skews the university governance as its main constituent is then missing from its processes.
The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK.