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Campus politics and the art of survival

  • Published at 12:07 am November 9th, 2019
Can we bring university life back on track? RAJIB DHAR

We need to get rid of toxic politics from our campuses           

It used to be that politics in university and college campuses were for running for office in student bodies such as college union, hall union, or university union. It used to be that, to run for these bodies, students would belong to one of many student organizations. 

It used to be that teachers would stay away from these bodies except when it came to forming the guidelines on conduct for these student bodies and supervising the elections to these bodies. 

The student bodies and student organizations would be run by the students, and teachers’ interference in these organizations was taboo. It used to also be the case that teachers in universities would have their own bodies and contest for offices in these bodies.

Students and teachers organizations never welded nor mixed with each other. But those were different times. 

The distinction between student organizations and teachers is blurred now. It is fair for one group to interfere in the other’s affairs. 

It is fair for teachers to seek out student parties or particular student groups to bestow support depending on the affiliation of the group to the right political party. 

Similarly, the student groups would also lend their support to the teachers not only in their contest for offices in their organization, but in their career growth also. 

So when the teachers turn a blind eye to the unruly activities of a particular student group, that group shows its loyalty by canvassing for their favourite teacher or teacher group for positions in college bodies or even career growth. 

Over the last four decades or more, our educational institutions for higher education, particularly public universities, have witnessed the worst deterioration in educational environment, all because of mutual disrespect for the once sacred student-teacher relationship. 

As students became more and more involved in party politics, and the political parties started using students for their political motives, the educational institutions became arenas for political control. The teachers who once spurned politics in campuses became embroiled in this new game of campus politics either for self-preservation, or out of greed. 

Students who were once ideologically driven based on their ideas and beliefs came to be influenced by whichever political party seized power and started to recruit them to fight their cause on the campus and streets when necessary. 

They were driven not by ideology but by power plays on the national scene. Fights in the campuses among groups were not for offices in the student bodies, but for total control of the campus under one political party to which the group was affiliated. 

This control extended, starting from admissions to the institution and its dormitories, student mess halls, award of building contracts, to university senate elections, and selection of department chairs, even the vice-chancellor. 

The result of such an outrageous invasion of party politics on campuses was such that teachers started to feel unsafe without the protection of student groups. Figuring that the stronger the group was, the safer the protection would be, the natural predilection of the teachers was with the group that gets its strength from the strongest political party. 

It is no wonder then that soon teachers would affiliate themselves with the student bodies having strong ties with the major political parties of the country. Those who did not, paid their dues by not getting selected to the positions they deserved. 

Recently, in one premier institution of higher learning, the incident involved a brazen case of the killing of a student in the hall dormitory by a group allegedly affiliated with one student party. 

The teachers of the educational institution, including its head, appeared helpless, at least in the initial stage, to take firm actions against the students caught red-handed until the police stepped in. That too with directions from the top of the government. 

In a separate incident in Gopalganj, the VC of the local university of science and technology had to leave his job rather unceremoniously after days of student protest against alleged corruption and irregularities. 

In a third incident, which is still ongoing, the students of Jahangirnagar University have been gathering for days for the removal of their VC for her alleged corruption. Earlier, she was rescued from her house when detained by students by another student group affiliated to the party in power. All of these incidents, student agitation, law-breaking, and even murders on our campuses of higher learning, point to one thing only -- the total deterioration of the educational environment and the collapse of discipline on the campuses. 

This has happened because our political leaders used the campuses to recruit cannon fodders for their political games, and to enhance their grip on political power. In this game, not only the educational institutions have been ruined, but also the future of our young people. 

The large majority of the students in these institutions do not want to become pawns in these political games, nor do the teachers. Yet, these students are helpless when they find that to get admissions in the institutions or to get a place in one of the dorms they have to pass the test of political affiliation to the right group.

They have to choose one group or another to survive on the campus, even to qualify in their exams. The teachers find their career path blocked unless they get the support of a student body. So, they enter this game, and often pay a price for it. 

The health of our educational institutions will not improve nor will education in its true sense return to these institutions until politics based on political parties stop. And this can come from our leaders now passing legislation that forbids student politics and parties with affiliation with national politics to operate on campuses.

Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.

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