State of the unionsThis is the right time to start a fresh debate on how to improve the faltering image of student unions.
Tribhuvan University is preparing to hold the Free Student Union elections on March 19. The student polls that should be conducted every two years had been repeatedly postponed due to disputes. Although a touch late, the university, Nepal's oldest and largest where around 80 percent of the country's students in higher education get enrolled, has finally fixed the date. If things go as planned, new student representatives should be elected after two months.
There are two contrasting images of student unions in Nepal. First, student politics has a glorious history given the vital role of student organisations in the country’s political and social changes. Since the 1947 Jayatu Sanskritam movement, Nepali students have continuously rebelled against injustice and in favour of democratic change. Be it the major political changes of 1990 and 2006 or any other movement for social justice, students were at the forefront. Student leaders even led the movement to usher in the federal republic system, even when their mother parties feared to take the revolutionary course. Nepal's student politics is thus considered among the more vibrant in South Asia.
But these days the student unions are nowhere in the scene. It is hard to think of a recent example where they took the initiative to advocate for a progressive change, or forced authorities to resolve a problem besetting the larger student fraternity. Perhaps their last big achievement was in securing a 30 percent discount for students in public transport. The system introduced after student unions’ lobbying over two decades ago still benefits students across the country.
Ideally, student unions and their leaders, as students’ representatives, should be run autonomously. But the reality of Nepal's student politics is different. Student union leaders are invariably picked by the bosses of their mother parties. Even when there is an election for the leadership, aspiring leaders need to get the blessing of party chiefs or other influential leaders to be elected. And once they are elected, they are less bothered about student issues and more about keeping their political bosses happy.
Student unions and leaders these days are infamous for padlocking university offices and colleges for weeks and months on end even if that does not in any way benefit students. As the organisations have failed to work for students and betterment of the university and education system, their very relevance is being questioned. New political parties such as Bibeksheel Sajha Party are against having their own student wings. Many of the top leaders including former prime ministers and ministers started their political career as student leaders. There, they developed as politicians. But both during their student days and later, seldom did they work to develop the university as a centre of academic excellence.
As thousands of students prepare for the upcoming elections, this is the right time to start a fresh debate on how to improve the image of student unions. For that, the student leaders, university authorities and political leadership must be ready to reinvent these student bodies. Besides working for the welfare of students, the student unions are where young politicians learn the ropes of political organisation and leadership. The erosion of their legitimacy will be at the cost of the country’s democratic culture. It will also lessen the bargaining power of the students from humble backgrounds who most benefit from government-run universities and colleges.