On The Nature of Student Unions
On the 15th of April, 2019, I, with other representatives from Gabungan Pembebasan Akademik (GPA), along with a representative from the committee to form a student union in UTM KL, attended the Conference on the Establishment of IIUM Student Union, held in their campus. A total of eight proposals were presented on an audience comprised of students from various universities. After each presentation, attendees are given the opportunity to ask questions and give feedback.
We are sceptical of certain aspects of the process. First, to submit a proposal, one must pass several criteria. It is unknown to us who sets these criteria. Secondly, the proposal must go through a panel of judges, of whom are composed of UIA admins and KPM officials. The process in its entirety remains very much a top – down approach, as if to legislate a student union into existence, rather than organically, from the students themselves, with no restrictions from the authorities. This bring forth concerns on whether such processes respect the autonomy students have long fought for, which quite ironically, plays a vital function in a student union. But what we have come to realise from the conference as a whole is that there remains much confusion on what student unions are and what role they play.
Students vs Administration
Before we go ahead with addressing such concerns, it helps to understand the dynamic of the relationship between the union, the administration and the students. The union, unlike the administration, or any other authorities within or outside the campus, does not posses the authority to enforce their powers outside the scope of their organisation. This remains within the realm of the administration. From here we can see a clear disparity in terms of power. A union may suggest certain rules to be enacted or certain actions to be undertaken within the campus, but in the end, it remains a suggestion. The decision on whether such suggestions are to be accepted remains entirely on the behest of the administration. Thus,
We talk a lot about “student power” but rarely do we ask, “how does it look like?”. “How is it projected/asserted?”. As explored above, the union, without its own laws to enforce, possess little to no power. If considered in a vacuum, it differs little from the current Student Representative Council (or Majlis Perwakilan Pelajar in Malay) arrangement that we currently have. When all other methods of diplomacy fail to bring any result, what is the union left with? The students it claims to represent! And therein lies the key to the answer. To put it simply, the power behest unto the union is entirely dependent on its ability to organise and mobilise the students to collectively act and sustainably work to achieve their goals. Without this, the union ceases to serve any function, making it entirely subject to the authority of the administration. This is essentially what differentiates the student union we seek to materialise from any other method of organising, namely the current SRC structure. It is vital then that the student union structure is reflected on this fact.
Even diplomatic action undertaken by the union is dependent on the support of the students to back it up. It cannot negotiate if the administration has no incentive to listen. And a union provides such incentive. In fact, it forces such incentive into play; listen to what we say, or we will act through the collective power of the students. Because ultimately a university is nothing without its students. The management must be made to realise to respect our existence or expect resistance.
In time, the union may provide several services to students on campus as a means to alleviate their position and improve the quality of life or education on campus. Such services may be, but not limited to, a free printing service (usually a quota), management of transport and on campus healthcare facilities. But it must understand that its ability to manage and provide these services is, as stated multiple times before, dictated by its ability to mobilise and act as a collective of students. The moment a student union is unable to do this, the authorities will be free to cut loose any of these services, usually by means of reducing the union budget. And the union will be left unable to act in any meaningful way. We’ve seen this dynamic play out in multiple campuses around the world, past and present.
One must then concede that the administration and the students stands in conflict with each other. The administration is in the business of governing, while the unions own purpose of existence is to resist from being governed; to assert its own autonomy. The administration is free to act without the support of the students, albeit to its own detriment. The union however, cannot. This is why autonomy has been a clear demand from student movements of the past and present, wherever they be. Without it, all manner of authority steps over us, with little resistance. Inclusion of the administration within the structure, as suggested by most of the proposals presented in the conference, severely hampers the ability of the union to function. In the event where conflict arises between the two forces, the administration cannot be trusted to act against its own interest.
Students and wider society
The nature of this conflict is also reflected in the capitalist underpinnings of the university or our education system in general. In the era of funding cuts, increasing tuition fees, privatisation and blatant violations of academic freedom, the administration is in the task of ensuring that the student comply towards these policies, whether it be for their own political or corporate interest, or the interest of social forces outside the campus. And these policies stand in direct contrast to the student’s own interest. A student enters the university to acquire knowledge, for the development of their own individual self and society at large. Its self-purpose in the university is different from that of the administration. When prevented from doing so, the student is abstracted from their sense of worth. They go to university, only to discover that their freedoms are not respected, their quality of life severely limited from the high cost of their education, having to sacrifice greatly for an education they feel do not adequately develop their skills, only to enter a job market that barely wants to accept them afterwards.
And that is the reality of our universities today. It essentially treats its own students as products to be commanded and moulded to their fitting, rather than human beings capable of self-determination and creative thought. Its functions over-time have come to resemble that of a factory rather than the space for societal development that itself envisions to be. And as it stands, most students seem to accept this arrangement as a social fact.
Such developments are hardly surprising. Ever since the gradual decimation of the student movement since the 70s, with the introduction of repressive laws such as AUKU and implementation of other more subtle practices (‘intellectual containment’ as Meredith Weiss terms it), students have gotten used to its own powerlessness that it can scarcely remember what it might be like to hold power. Memories of a bygone student movement live outside the living memory of students today and are purposely suppressed. Under this situation it becomes hard to imagine an alternative. Overtime they have come to internalise this seemingly inescapable logic of subjugation despite being fully aware of their position. Dissatisfaction with the current order of things amongst students is far too common. What is left to do now is to build the consciousness to overcome this logic.
What is to be done?
Here lies another vital role that the student unions of our time must play; to build this consciousness and empower them to act collectively because if there is one thing that unites all students regardless of status or even CGPA results, it is their domination by the authorities. One of the many narratives mentioned during the conference is the question of whether the students are ready to realise their potential and dictate their own conditions of being, mainly to justify the interference of the administration. There is much to say on this. But the alternative is not to sit around and hope for a miracle to happen or a benevolent authority to do the work for us, but rather to build this readiness ourselves.
In realising their goal, the union must not be hesitant in admitting the political nature of their struggle. Because what the union fights for is an equitable distribution of resources, the welfare of students, maintaining the university’s role as a hub of individual and societal development and consequently, the union is fighting for the future of its society. Those are political goals, no matter how one looks at it. Those who argue that the university is no place for politics either have a narrow understanding of politics, one limited exclusively to party-based politics, or are unaware of the role the university plays in our society.
The discussions around academic freedom, university autonomy and student unions recently are very much welcome. Many of the audience in the conference itself present a critical view of the current situation and expressed the vital need for autonomy and freedom for student unions. This is a positive development. It is high time for students to realise and acknowledge their role in society and overcome years of repression and challenge the ambivalence cultivated by the authorities. It is imperative however that autonomy is emphasized in the process of establishing the student union. To legislate a student union into existence, especially without prior consultation with the students, and not to have it established organically by the students themselves is concerning as it risks devaluating the ability and functions of the student unions.
There is a very big potential that lies within a student union. In UTM KL, the MJIIT (Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology) faculty has decided in the last few years to increase their fees up by a staggering 529% (from RM 945 to RM 5000), among many other injustices. In UM, student activists were physically attacked by UMNO supporters for peacefully expressing dissent. A student union can be the vital platform for students to fight these kinds of issues. The student union as such must be autonomous and guaranteed the space to operate in order to fight their issues, with no compromises. Anything else is a compromise that hands power to the university administration and the government through the back door and must be opposed.
By Anas Norazim
Gabungan Pembebasan Akademik