From big talk to small information

To make student societies work, their executive members need both thematic and management skills; including gender and social cohesion

The higher education sector has expanded in a big way since the 2002 reforms. There is a phenomenal upsurge evident in the number of universities, campuses, students and teachers. The research requirements - quality apart for this discussion - for faculty career progression have been put in place. Other initiatives have led to growth in the scale of the sector. Nevertheless, there is one area where the work and information collection have been neglected on a national scale. Individual universities still manage their own guidelines for the student societies. We hardly know what is happening in non-academic and extra-curricular programming and how the students are participating in student societies, clubs and other student-led forums on the campuses.

Why should a student participate in these societies? Because it is assumed that such societies offer opportunities of healthy leadership grooming activities on campuses. That’s why they are deemed a potent form of youth engagement for the literate lot. These societies provide the youth with platforms and spaces for self-expression and groom various competencies, ranging from oral to written communication to management, coordination, leadership and community service. They embody the social capital of youth resources being developed in an organised way and when fully operational they demonstrate sustainability of student-led actions on the campuses.

In Pakistan, the ban on student unions —initially in February 1989 and endorsed by the Supreme Court in July 1992 — has doubly necessitated the promotion of student societies.

A lot of literature produced elsewhere is available that validates the utility of student societies from multiple perspectives, i.e., leadership, social capital, youth development, political and civic engagement of the youth and as a cornerstone of any non-academic programming which lets students take part in grooming themselves and consequently come out with various professional, social and personal competencies that eventually prepare them for leading roles in the future markets, politics and societies.

In our milieu, the potential of the student societies is taken as a fact. With the expansion of higher education sector and greater investment after 2002, a renewed interest has emerged to also look towards student societies as new avenues of youth leadership. There is a broad consensus now in higher education, development and public circles about the utility of student societies However, we find that in practical terms we have so far made almost no progress towards providing credible empirical evidence in the form of data or analysis to validate the assertion that student societies groom leadership qualities on campuses.

There is hardly any evidence to support the claim and the current assertion has hardly risen above talk, individual observations and wishful assumptions. It is safe to state that there is no systemic and scientific study available on student societies in Pakistan.

The assumed promise of the student societies is mainly deducted from historical examples from the arena of student politics and unions and attributed to the student societies.

The first formal study on the student societies came as late as 2019 when Bargad, a youth development organisation, brought out a training needs assessment (TNA) study as part of its project, entitled, “Youth Leadership on Campuses.” The study is based on a quantitative survey method that probed the issues of organisation, recruitment and composition, planning process and operations, objectives, training opportunities and challenges, gender considerations, and social media working of the student societies, in Pakistani universities. It recorded responses of 68 student office bearers and representatives of 33 societies from 11 universities of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), including 5 and 6, respectively, from these two provinces. Two of these were private universities (one from each province).

The afore-mentioned study has filled a compelling gap. It provides empirical data on a nascent field of research and sets the baseline for other researches on student societies to come. The findings of the study can help further thinking through and consolidation of the societies for greater student participation and leadership opportunities on campuses.

While validating that the societies have created leadership opportunities, there are five major trends that transpire from findings of the study. These must be considered for any policy making and programme development for student societies on a national level.

These trends include (i) young age, (ii) faculty and administration control, (iii) women in executive positions, (iv) identification of training needs, and (v) resource mobilisation for student societies in universities.

Key Findings

89.7 percent out of 68 participating student societies have emerged within the period of 2010-2018. Establishment of most of these bodies was witnessed in 2018 (38.2 percent), 2015 (13.2 percent) and 2018 (10.3 percent) respectively.

51.5 percent societies had between five and fifty members; 20.6 percent were in the 50-100 range and 13.2 percent in the 100-500 range. 8.8 percent societies had less than five members each.

The primary function of these societies is to act as a “Platform for Youth” (44.1 percent); they mostly do “social work” to achieve their objectives (25 percent); and hold seminars (14.7 percent); workshops and campaigns were also a favourite activity (11.8 percent).

The average female membership ratio in the student societies is 39.7 percent, which is far less than girls’ enrolment on campuses. Student representatives identified ways through which they encourage female participation. A total of 38 (55.9 percent) representatives pointed towards providing more opportunities to girls. According to the data, 50 (73.5 percent) out of 68 representatives responded that they had female office bearers. 59 (86.8 percent) out of 68 student society representatives responded that they have women leadership in their society.

In most cases (36.8 percent), executive members of student societies are recruited through interviews, while 29.4 percent representatives say it’s an open membership process. Only 39.7 percent representatives said that their society was student managed. Teachers and university administration are mostly (86 percent) involved in membership and formation of societies.

57.4 percent representatives indicated that there is an allocated budget by their university for the student society. In most cases (58.8 percent), the societies also received funding from sources other than university. A total of 29 (42.6 percent) representatives pointed towards lack of resources. Fourteen of the representatives believed that there is no funding. 88.2 percent representatives were highly keen and recognised the need for training in fund raising techniques. 61 (89.7 percent) representatives said that their societies are open to collaboration outside of the university. 42 (61.8 percent) out of 68 representatives responded that there are existing arrangements for collaboration with external organisations. 45 (66.2 percent) out of 68 representatives said that they have issues relating to training/capacity building of their members.

56 (82.4 percent) indicated that there is a mechanism of reporting to the university administration. 89.7 percent representatives also said that there are always planning meetings for dealing with society affairs. 57 (83.8 percent) representatives indicated that there are specific goals for their society laid out by the university administration. 43 (63.2 percent) societies have annual calendars.

The representatives endorsed that the societies have created opportunities for their student members. A total of 14 (20.6 percent) representatives pointed towards gaining interpersonal skills. Ten (14. percent) of the representatives believed that there are off-campus opportunities.

40 (58.8 percent) out of 68 representatives indicated that their society had a Facebook page. One respondent said that there was a Twitter page. A total of 10 respondents had both Facebook and Twitter pages. A total of 17 did not answer the question. Facebook was most prevalent of all social media platforms. 51 (75 percent) representatives said that their societies used social media platform to promote updates of their society. 36 (52.9 percent) said that the societies arrange social media activities for the students. Moreover, responding to a question, 36 (52.9 percent) representatives said that the societies have arranged social media activities for campaigning.

A majority of the student societies in universities have emerged from 2010 to 2018, which coincides with the expansion of higher education. This shows how public universities are now responding to competitiveness in the higher education environment and have started realising the need to engage students in constructive activities and excel personally and professionally.

The societies have diversified from traditional societies for debating, literary, sports, blood donor, music, social welfare, etc, to include media, e-media, film, writing, photo video, environment, volunteering, woman empowerment and fine arts.

Another important feature is that the student societies work in a managed environment under focal persons from faculty and administration. Girl students are represented in membership but not in executive positions barring a few exceptions. The societies are facing a lack of funds and training facilities and their members require training, especially in areas of documentation.

To make student societies work, their executive members need both thematic and management skills; including gender and social cohesion in themes and capacity building in documentation, reporting, social media and fund raising techniques. The training agenda should also cover thematic clarity and behavioural change towards women participation on campuses.

The writer is a youth and social development consultant. He can be reached at

From big talk to small information