Listen to what THEY are saying

BARGAD, a youth-serving NGO has recently launched a groundbreaking study 'National Survey on Student Politics, 2008'. It is the largest ever consultative study on student politics in Pakistan. Iqbal Haider Butt, lead researcher and author, talks to the TNS.

By Saeed Ur Rehman

The News on Sunday: Why was this study done? Why do you think it was needed?

Iqbal Haider Butt: There were three reasons behind the idea to undertake this study. The first was that there is a widespread belief that the youth are apathetic to collective social action and reject politics. Like many notions in our state and society, we have occasionally based our thinking on tested data and empirical evidence. Rather there is a general tendency to promote hearsay and unexamined statements. Our survey shows that the conventional idea of youth apathy is incorrect, at least in students' perception and theory. It reveals that Pakistani students are not against politics per se. They reject a certain kind of politics. They thoroughly welcome student unions and see that student politics should serve the objective of quality education in the country.

Secondly, the immediate concern was that the prime minister declared lifting ban on student politics and unions. It has not been yet formally notified. We were apprehensive that there would be no consultation with the students, who are end-users and primary beneficiaries, while forming policy on of the student politics and unions. We have seen in the past that except for one educational national policy (Hamood ur Rehman Commission on Student Problems and Welfare, 1966), students' views have never been included. Through the National Survey on Student Politics 2008, we have collected and presented students' voice before the nation.

The third and very practical issue was we wanted to ensure that the prospective student politics contributes to peace-building and women leadership development in campuses.

It is encouraging that the present-day students of higher education support both the aims. The study has provided detailed recommendations on regulating student politics in favour of peace-loving, friendly and discrimination-free university environment. We are hopeful that the government and higher education authorities will certainly take advantage of this large-scale work and formulate regulatory mechanism and code of conduct according to the wishes of the majority of students. Our message is: listen to what THEY are saying.

TNS: What is the scale of the study?

IHB: Our sample size is five percent students of all 23 general education public universities of Pakistan. We have collected views of 909 students according to a stratified random sample technique. In that sense, it is not just an opinion poll (as frequently used by media) which may indicate to a problem but cannot scientifically represent the concerned population. The National Survey on Student Politics, 2008, has been designed and implemented using social research techniques. That's why it gives us full confidence that its results show aspirations of all the students of general education public universities of the country.

The best thing however is that the BARGAD's volunteer students themselves have collected research data after necessary guidance on how to do it. That is also true for data entry. So in the process of producing this survey, we have also given select students an opportunity to demonstrate practical skills that they can use in their future professional lives.

TNS: What has been the key message of students about campus politics?

IHB: All in all, the message has been that YOU CANNOT CONTINUE POLITICS AS YOU HAVE DONE IN THE PAST. The ordinary students want a new politics based on the issues of quality and access to education. This has been missing in the history of student politics.

TNS: What in your opinion are the factors that shape views of the present-day students?

IHB: I think that today's students clearly sense that cost of higher education is a huge burden on their parents. There is high competition for jobs. Students cannot afford to indulge in any activity that may disrupt their studies.

They have little faith in politicians and student groups affiliated with these politicians. Then different disciplines are developing in Pakistan and now people do not explain things only by ideologies, which they were largely dependent upon in the past.

The ratio of girl students and their visibility in universities has tremendously increased. There has been an enhanced process of urbanisation and far reaching changes in media and communication technologies.

The contemporary student of higher education is linked by the net and can interact with fellow students through mobile phones. So there has been a great virtual space for them to freely communicate with each other. On the other hand, the dominant student groups relied upon physical surveillance and policing in campuses in the past with the help of authoritarian regimes, so they could intimidate anyone. But now you cannot physically check mutual communication and mobility of students. For example, see how they have created their groups (Okut, etc.) and blogs on the internet and are posting videos on the Youtube. Anything that happens in a campus would be communicated to not only the students but also to millions of people connected. We have seen this in the case of students' uprising this year in Punjab University, Lahore, against a dominant student group. You cannot hide the truth. There is a whole lot of student activism going on through the internet.

TNS: Have you also addressed the history of student politics in Pakistan?

IHB: Yes, but that it was not the main thrust of our study. It is not an historical analysis. However, in sections on background, theoretical approach and literature review I have taken on the past activism mainly pursued by the Democratic Student Federation (DSF), National Student Federation (NSF) and Islami Jamiat Talaba (IJT). This illustrates that irrespective of their ideological loyalties all these groups gave little attention to educational issues. These were ideologically driven entities, working for some kind of a revolution, taking campuses as the instrument to achieve their perceived missions.

They also resembled in their rhetoric. I have specifically mentioned years' long alliances of these 'opposing' groups when it comes to fighting educational policies; howsoever sane and having the potential to split them apart.

Till late sixties, I am also skeptical over the scale of student politics which was limited to three big cities. Both ideological groups also had little contacts with their 'comrades' and 'beradars' in the East Pakistan. The era of 1980's has also been addressed when the dominant student group facilitated the regime in a recruitment campaign for Afghan jehad (which eventually deprived them of cadres), while the government ruthlessly persecuted its opponents and started to gradually withdraw responsibility of education under the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), but the education was not an issue!

Nevertheless, I would say that the study is not a historical review anyway. It is a survey research on what present-day students are thinking about campus politics and what measures can be taken to redefine a new politics. I hope its results can wake up our old guards.

TNS: Will the results of the National Survey on Student Politics, 2008, have an impact upon government's policy on student politics?

IHB: I wish it does. There has been a very positive response from university VCs and politicians on the launching ceremony held in Islamabad on 12 August.

Politicians of many shades and the educationists are however sharply divided over student politics. The former is for open party politicization of campuses, while the latter stand for limiting scope of such politics. One thing still binds them: Their wishes and apprehensions come from a historical legacy. They both are living in the past, while the (political and social) reality of students has radically changed. They frankly disassociate themselves with ghosts of the previous eras. Many veteran student leaders, presently politicians, would also now vote for this new thinking for a new student politics.

The National Survey on Student Politics, 2008, has provided a meeting and negotiating place for politicians, educationists, students and concerned citizens and provided practical solution to legitimately regulate student politics in a way that does not hinder constitutional rights of free association.

I believe our study will encourage further research and debates in the country. We also anticipate that government, NGOs, think-tanks, political parties, student organizations and institutes will invest more on similar researches on aspects of youth, which has a massive potential to change Pakistan in phenomenal terms.

According to national estimates, 61 percent of our population is under 25 years of age. International analysts are growingly alarmed over this "Youth Bulge" and see its intrinsic link with internal strive and insecurity. It will take some time before our policy makers and politicians seriously take note of this youth factor. The corporate sector and the commercial advertisers have however realized this emerging reality of Pakistan.