Under the chairmanship of Senator Irfan Siddiqui, the Islamabad Capital Student Union Bill 2023 was passed after much-needed debate. Bringing an end to the ban imposed on student unions by General Zia-ul-Haq in 1986 to squash dissent, the Senate has paved the path towards a more democratic culture in Pakistan where citizens—especially the youth—are taught the importance of civic duties and reminded of the promise that comes along with productive change. The bill, as it stands today, only pertains to Islamabad but the hope is that it will be expanded owing to the fact that student unions are instrumental in improving the crumbling education system of the country.
Over the course of years, multiple attempts were made for the revival of student unions but none came to fruition. In 2017, the Senate headed by Mian Raza Rabbani attempted to reverse the draconian ban but the matter fizzled out. It was taken up later by Imran Khan who explicitly expressed his support for empowering the students of the country, but no practical step was taken to reinstate their unionisation. Current representatives have now demonstrated that they possess political will needed to push important policies through, and thankfully so.
Student unions exist for the purposes of protecting the student body’s rights, and communicating grievances about the education sector to the government. Given that our education system—particularly higher education—seems to be in shambles, these students could very well provide solutions from first-hand experience and as direct affectees of educational policies. Beyond this even, it is vital to give students a voice in today’s day and age. Incorporating them in debates and matters concerning the education sector not only strengthens their intellectual bandwidth but nurtures their leadership potential.
For now, Quaid-e-Azam University is going to become the first institution of the country to reinstate its student union. As we applaud this, there are a few things to be mindful of still; the modalities of the elections for these unions must be devised and communicated to all relevant stakeholders. By law, each union must also have representatives not only from the concerned ministry but also from the institution’s registrar. Students must also be reminded of the fact that the union is not a political, religious or ethnic group but simply a platform through which they can be heard as students, protect their rights and make reasonable demands for the sake of academic excellence and overall wellbeing.