What to make of March student union electionsEven as their relevance is questioned, Tribhuvan University seeks to widen the scope of Free Student Union polls.
The Tribhuvan University executive committee has finally decided to hold the long- pending Free Student Union elections on March 19 and directed all its constituent and affiliated colleges to prepare for the polls. Through the elections, the colleges under the university will get the elected representatives for the next two years so that they can better raise the students’ concerns with the administration. Over many decades, student leaders have been a part of various political transformations. Many of today’s top political leaders cut their teeth in student politics.
The biennial elections held periodically until 2009 have been irregular of late. The last time the polls took place was in 2017. As the FSU elections are around the corner, here is a history of college politics and how it has evolved over the years.
The start of the FSU polls
King Mahendra Shah on December 15, 1960 dissolved the first democratically elected parliament, sacked the prime minister and his Cabinet members, and took control of executive powers through a coup. That created the ground for student politics at the university level, which eventually led to elections. The first FSU election was held in 1962 at Tribhuvan University. Until 1974, the elections were held annually.
However, the Panchayat regime banned the elections until the 1980 referendum. Starting the same year, the polls resumed, to be held biennially. Barring some exceptions, the polls had been held annually until 2009.
When are the next elections?
If things go as planned, the 27th iteration of student elections will be held on March 19. Tribhuvan University, the oldest and the largest in the country and home to around 80 percent of its students, decided to hold the polls after consulting the deans of different faculties, the examination controller’s office and the student unions. The TU administration has directed all constituent and affiliated colleges to gear up for the elections. In addition to 61 constituent colleges, the university administration wants to conduct the polls in its 1,040 affiliated colleges—both community and private.
In the elections held last in 2017, voting took place only in 35 constituent campuses and some 100 community colleges due to differences among student unions and incidents of violence. The last time elections were held across the country was in 2009.
Where are the elections held?
University officials say the elections must be held in every constituent and affiliated college under the varsity. The TU administration has directed all the colleges to act accordingly. However, over the years the elections have only been held in TU’s constituent colleges and affiliated colleges under community ownership. Those owned privately have not been conducting the polls. The university administration says they want even the private colleges to hold the FSU polls, but that is not mandatory.
Why the elections?
Almost every political party that has a presence in national politics has its student wing at college and university level. The leaders of the student wings of respective parties contest the FSU elections and only those who are elected legally represent the students. In principle, elected representatives raise students’ concerns with the college administration and work for student welfare. Conducting extracurricular and creative activities too are the responsibilities of the Free Student Union.
Where do they get resources from?
Each student enrolled at a college under the university needs to pay a certain amount to be utilised by the FSU. The amount is paid at the time of admission.
How are the elections held?
The number of elected representatives depends on student enrollment. An 11-member committee including the president, vice-president, secretary, joint secretary and treasurer and six members are elected in the colleges with up to 200 students. A 15-member panel is elected when the number of enrolled students is between 201 and 1,000. The committee has 19 members in colleges having 1,000 to 3,000 students. Likewise, the FSU executive committee has 21 members, if the student enrollment exceeds 3,000.
Student representatives in all positions used to be directly elected before 2017. Starting with the 2017 election, the university adopted a mixed electoral system that would allow division of seats between the representatives through proportional and first-past-the-post systems. Pashupati Adhikari, chief at the Directorate of Student Welfare and Sports at the university, said the president, secretary, treasurer and 50 percent members are elected directly, while the vice-president, joint secretary and the other 50 percent members are elected through proportional representation. Also starting in 2017, the university started allowing only those students who are below 28 to contest the elections and take part in voting.
Which leaders have risen to power through student politics?
There are a number of influential political leaders who rose through student politics. Nepali Congress President and former prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba joined the political mainstream from student politics. The party’s general secretaries Gagan Thapa and Bishwa Prakash Sharma were elected FSU leaders. Former home ministers Bal Krishna Khand and Bijay Kumar Gachhadar and other leaders like Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, NP Saud and Chandra Bhandari too were elected to student councils at various times.
CPN-UML General Secretary Shankar Pokharel and the party’s other leaders like Khaga Raj Adhikari, Yogesh Bhattarai, Yagya Sunuwar, Bishal Bhattarai and Mahesh Bartaula did the same, as did CPN (Maoist Centre) leaders like Himal Sharma and Hitman Shakya.
Are the FSU polls still significant?
Student politics has played a big role in the country’s political transformation over the decades. Even when the Panchayat regime banned political parties, the universities and colleges always remained politically charged. It was a student uprising that pressured the autocratic Panchayat rulers for a referendum in 1980. Student leaders played pivotal roles in the people’s movements of 1990 and 2006.
Even after the restoration of democracy, student leaders were at the forefront in raising students’ issues and building pressure on the government to address common man’s issues like high inflation. However, of late, student leaders have become unpopular for using their positions for personal benefits. They are accused of seeking commissions from college administrations and serving the interests of their mother parties, while ignoring the issues of students and the larger education sector. There are even calls to scrap the FSU elections.
Others argue that the FSU is vital to promoting student welfare, but not in its present form where student leaders have an interest in everything except education. But university officials say student councils exist right around the world and the FSU was designed accordingly.