That would be a great democratic move if Prime Minister Imran Khan allows the restoration of student unions; though subject to a “comprehensive and enforceable code of conduct,” of course. Student Action Committee led Students’ Solidarity March on Friday during which they put up charter of demand regarding their educational career. The major demands included the restoration of Higher Education Commission grant to both public sector and private sector universities; allocation of 5 percent of the gross domestic product for the promotion of higher education; end to layoff process of in-service faculty members; nationalization of all education institutions to bring down the unaffordable cost of education; giving say to Students’ Committee in investigation of cases of sexual harassment of students; and removal of security forces offices from campuses.
The Prime Minister Imran tweeted: “Universities groom future leaders of the country and student unions form an integral part of this grooming. Unfortunately, in Pakistani universities, student unions became violent battlegrounds and completely destroyed the intellectual atmosphere on campuses.” In another tweet, he emphasised the restoration of unions after a well-thought out strategy, which is indeed a good strategy. His fear about the proliferation of violent groups on campuses is well-founded as the Punjab University had to penalise over a dozen students for violence and breaching discipline. Violence on campuses, however, is the byproduct of the ban on student unions by the Zia martial law regime roughly 35 years ago. The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, which often takes credit for politicising the youth for their democratic rights, should have announced the restoration of student unions well ahead of the students’ march.
Special Assistant on Information and Broadcasting, Firduos Asiq Awan said in a twitter message that Prime Minister has directed federal and provincial governments to work out a comprehensive strategy for speedy resolution of students’ problems and protection of their rights. All the demands presented by the Students’ Action Committee are genuine except closing of police office and presence of police to perform security duty in campuses of government universities.
The suspension of yearly grant from Higher Education Commission (HEC) has created financial crisis in the institutions of higher education, particularly government universities, compelling the managements to acquire bank loans at exorbitant rate of interest and increase tuition fee for student which is already on high side. It is true that in the past HEC grants were spent more on the perks and privileges of professorial lot and construction of new buildings. From the grant money, not a single penny was spent on the instrumentation of science labs, purchase of reference books and subscription of top notch international research journals.
The fresh announcement, though a welcome one, has not come without a spoiler: the police have registered a case against the march activists, including the father of late student activist Mashaal Khan, for taking out the procession. Not only this, a student activist was abducted from the Punjab University campus the following day. Such acts, we believe, are only meant to cloud the spirit of the prime minister’s announcement on the restoration of student unions. The government must take notice of the police case and the disappearance of the student activist.
The prime minister’s step to restore unions is likely to get massive approval from both sides of the aisle in the House and Sindh Government also decides to lift the ban on the student union.
All the Political and National Awami Party has long been a supporter of healthy student activism, while PML-N and other mainstream parties have also voiced their support. Ministers like Dr Shereen Mazari, and Fawad Chaudhry have openly favoured the students’ demands.
Students have also spoken out for the establishment of committees in institutes to probe into sexual harassment cases as well as ensuring representation of students on these committees. Their other demand is the removal of security forces’ offices from campuses and an end to undue checking. These demands also merit attention of the authorities.
It is for the Federal and provincial governments to deliberate over the charter of demands of Students’ Action Committee and come up with practical solutions and not the customary hollow rhetoric.