Student politics 101Rather than act as pawns of mother parties, student leaders should help improve academic quality.
Tribhuvan University (TU) conducted the Free Students Union (FSU) elections in dozens of constituent and affiliated campuses of what is the country’s oldest and largest university. In campuses across the country, thousands of students voted to elect their representatives, with great excitement. But in several other campuses, the process was marred by disputes, controversies and clashes. For instance, the college administration had to mobilise a large number of security personnel and halt voting as rival student groups clashed at Mahendra Bindeshwari Multiple Campus in Rajbiraj. Similar incidents were reported in the Bajura-based Budhinanda Campus in the Far West. Likewise, some student representatives were arrested at Shankardev Campus in Kathmandu as they tried to cast votes showing fake student identity cards. The respective election committees had earlier halted candidate nomination and entire election procedures due to unruly activities of students in dozens of campuses. Police even made some arrests.
But no one who has followed Nepali student politics over the years would have been surprised. Involvement of student representatives in clashes, vandalism, arson and assault of university officials and teachers is common. According to Dharma Kanta Baskota, vice-chancellor of Tribhuvan University, the university offices and campuses have been padlocked for 342 days in the past three years. While mostly members of student unions padlock the offices, other groups such as part-time teachers and employees have also started resorting to such highly-disruptive forms of protests.
Student bodies by their nature should be seen as representatives of change, innovation, exploration and social reform. But the reality is the opposite. It is unfortunate that Nepal’s student unions and their leaders have become synonymous with disruptive activities. Officials admit that a large number of students get admitted to campuses just to misuse the academic institutions and their union chapters to serve their vested interests. Vice-chancellor Baskota laments that he gets little support from the government and political leadership when he tries to punish such elements.
The degrading quality of education is arguably the country’s most pressing issue. Reform of the country’s largest public institution of higher education should have been the starting point to improve the overall quality of its public education. And unions elected from among students can play a constructive role in this. They can be catalysts in helping improve the relations between students and TU administration. They can also do a lot more to expose the wrongdoings of the university administration, including through timely protests. But disrupting academic activities for pure self-interest is self-defeating and the incoming student leadership must be mindful of this.
As the voices in favour of reform and reinvention of the Free Students Unions are being raised, the first task of the newly elected representatives should be to think of how to bring this about to reflect the broader public aspirations. They should train their focus on lifting the academic quality of their college, rather than engaging in disruptive activities by acting as pawns of their mother parties and leaders. They can also provide constructive criticism in university policy-making of which they are an integral part. If they don’t mend their rowdy ways quickly, student politics will continue to get more irrelevant by the day