Students’ Union a training ground for nation building

By Idayu Mumtaz binti Iskandar

A bright city does not glow by itself. The bulb makers, the lamplighters, and the architects have to put their hands together to start the first spark.

The youths are a powerhouse of potential and a university acts as the training ground to empower this dynamic group for a better Malaysia. With a government which aspires to strengthen students’ voices through the establishment of students’ unions, this opportunity must be seized. It does not take only the student representatives or the officers of student affairs alone, but every single community of a university to come together.

Unlike a students’ representative council (SRC), a students’ union is supposed to be potent. It will enjoy the full autonomy to manage and approve student activities and budgets, a solidarity which means every registered university student would automatically become a member and share governance with the university management, that is to work closely together to provide the best student experience for all.

Many collaborative initiatives have been taken towards realising the first students’ union in this country which IIUM will be piloting.

On 12 June recently a four-day workshop to develop a general guideline for students’ union establishment was organised by the Ministry of Education (Holistic Student Division, Department of Higher Education) in collaboration with the IIUM Office of the Deputy Rector (Student Development and Community Engagement).

Student representatives, activists, university staffs and officers of student affairs of public universities from all over the country attended to put their minds and hands together. The Students’ Representative Council (SRC) and the Students Union Working Committee (SUWC) of IIUM were honoured to be part of this effort in mobilising the programme.

Past, Present and Future of Student Power

After it was officiated by the Deputy Rector, Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zulkifli Hasan, the first hours were fired up with a one-hour presentation by the distinguished Director of Holistic Student Division, Dr. Zaid Omar, about the past, present, and future of student power. It covered the significance of students’ union establishment beginning with one fundamental question: What is the function of a university? For students, is it about spending thousands of ringgit and countless sleepless nights only to move between classes and couches and cafes, or is it to build young people’s characters, competency, and competitiveness to be all-rounded enough to lead humankind?

There were also a series of talks in the workshop. Co-founders of Undi18, Tharmelinggem Pillai and Qyira Yusri, casted light on the great responsibility the 18-year-olds have been taking up, such as, going into the military or raising a family. So, they deserve to actively choose their leaders. If an 18-year-old could not think matured enough, it rather says a lot about parenting at home and the environment for critical thinking at one’s school. Those are the things that need fixing instead.

After another talk on the basics of Registry of Societies (ROS) which is one of the mechanisms to legitimise a students’ union, Vanessa Scully of University of Malaya walked us through their historic fully-student-run campus election.

In addition, the audience also debated whether e-voting or manual voting is better. Yet, besides the reliability of the voting means, electoral system also needs to be re-evaluated, whereby currently it is the first-past-the-post (FPTP), in comparison with the far more representative single transferable vote (STV), or other types there are to exist.

Besides, IIUM Students’ Union Working Committee also presented the progress of the diligent entity so far. Among activists present at the workshop was Hishamuddin Rais who shared his experience about the vibrance of the students’ union during his time in the 1970s when he was a student leader. He urged students to properly understand the concept of autonomy, which means a-hundred-percent management by the students.

A few members of the SRC and SUWC were assigned to chair the group discussions on the fundamentals of a students’ union, which were divided into six clusters: structure, financial aspects, accountability and audit, campus election, facilities, and awareness and advocacy. Student leaders in their respective groups debated their ideas and aspirations, then the outputs were presented and exchanged among other groups to be criticised and refined.

The Challenges and Wisdom

The challenges of having such intense discussions taught the necessity to do extensive research, consult the experienced, and learn how to reconcile opposing views.

The journey has been advancing ever since the IIUM Students’ Union Establishment Conference last April. The proposal submission prior to the conference was open to all for any IIUM student to participate, and eight was the number received. A proposal has been chosen to lay as the foundation, then the best ideas from other proposals were merged as one, as worked on by the students in the SUWC. It is done by the students, our very brilliant students who worked hard day and night to perfect the paperwork.

All stakeholders of this ecosystem of educational institutions need to collaborate maturely to realise our agenda of student empowerment, so all our future children could inherit a healthy, vibrant, and comprehensive learning environment. The aspiration may be shared by the ministry, universities and student councils, but more effort must be taken to raise awareness and educate the students at the grass-root level about students’ union, for the sake of bolstering their participation and activism.

Students’ union, as the name implies, entails the utmost front line giving life to this movement to be students. It has got to come: of the students, by the students, for the students. Any group of students which carries the voices of students for social betterment while upholding the values of integrity, inclusivity, and diplomacy should be supported in every way. The new Malaysia means openness in thinking in terms of cooperating with whichever entity which could contribute to the prosperity of this country, regardless of their background and position.

There is a wisdom which one cannot essentially grasp until he or she experiences the rise and fall along the learning process. It is still a long, uphill way to go to empower the youth and students, yet the first step must be taken. At the end of the day, for one of us to make it through, a hundred of us have to make an attempt.***

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