COVID-19: Most universities haven't had student elections since 2019

Student elections were postponed by a year but ‘unofficial’ student unions continued to represent university students through their most tumultuous year in a long time.

COVID-19: Most universities haven't had student elections since 2019 representational image (source: Shutterstock)
Atul Krishna | Apr 26, 2021 - 5:47 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: The president of Maulana Azad National Urdu University (MAANU) Shaik Umer Faruq Quadri was elected in September 2019. Quadri, who was doing his MA English, is no longer a student of the university after he finished his final year exams early this year.

However, the chaos brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has forced him to stay on as the de facto students’ union president as elections could not be conducted over the year.

“Our tenure was officially dissolved in October but we have continued on as an interim union till the next elections,” said Quadri.

“We have not received any official communication in this regard. But we have been representing issues and the administration has considered us as they have during the official tenure,” he said.

Quadri maintains that the union is in touch with all the first-year students who joined the university in September and has helped students through their online counselling sessions.

Elections on hold

The 2020-21 academic year was exceptionally disruptive for education, both school and higher. The COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant lockdown disrupted academic schedules across the country. Learning was pushed online and so were the exams. Students across universities opposed online exams citing lack of access to internet and digital devices. However, most universities, notably University of Delhi, held online exams that were then riddled with technical issues causing further anxiety to students.

Also, many universities continued to charge the same fee or even raised it for facilities such as mess and hostels even though students were at home.

In that unprecedented situation, student bodies’ role in representing the grievances of students became crucial. However, the tenure of most elected student unions’ ended as the pandemic was raging on.

The University Grants Commission (UGC) Lyngdoh Committee report, which has set the guidelines for student elections in universities and been upheld by the Supreme Court, mandates that elections “be held on a yearly basis”. It also sets out when an election can be organised – within a few months of the admission process ending – and who can contest.

The election bylaws of the respective universities, which are framed according to the Lyngdoh committee report, also require elections to be held each year. The University of Delhi’s bylaws categorically state that “the office-bearers of the union will not remain in office beyond one year”.

However, much like they did for every other aspect of education, the universities took unprecedented decisions with regard to student unions.

jadavpur university-students-protest-featured-imageJadavpur University students during a protest (source: Shutterstock)

Extended tenure

Similar to MAANU, universities across India unofficially extended the tenure of their respective students’ unions
and continued to work with and respond to them.

“Although we did not receive any official notifications regarding the extension of our tenure, we are recognised as the students’ union,” said Abhishek Nandan, president of Hyderabad Central University Students Union (HCUSU). “We were called for the academic council meeting and a report of the last committee meeting was addressed to me as the president so I don’t think a confusion exists.”

“Since the election cannot be held anytime soon we will continue representing the students till the next elections are held and it’s not like they can force us out without due process,” Nandan said.

However, the students’ union which was elected in late 2019 is still in charge of the office. Representatives said that the Delhi University did not dissolve the union as was the norm at the end of each term.

“If we haven’t received the notice regarding the dissolution of the union then the question of extending tenure also does not arise,” said Akshit Dahiya, president of Delhi University Students Union (DUSU).

Similar unofficial extensions were also done in universities such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Pondicherry University.

Working on campus and off

While their tenures were extended smoothly, unions found themselves having to convey the views of students who were not on campus but at their homes. They were able to do so with varying levels of success.

“During this period, we set up the Students’ Academic Recommendations Committee which submitted recommendations on online and offline education to the administration. We had also initiated multilingual helpline desks and other measures to help new students,” said Dahiya. At DU, the biggest challenge was teaching and holding exams for its undergraduate students.

At other places, elected members did face difficulties of representing student issues during university closures. Students said that pressurizing the administration to reopen colleges for PhD students was difficult during the pandemic.

“PhD students require continuous access to books that can only be available through the university’s servers. On their side, the administration said that they cannot do anything without the government’s approval,” said Subhayan Acharya Majumdar, general secretary of the Arts Faculty Students Union, Jadavpur University. “Usually when an issue occurs, many of us show dissent by gathering in front of the administration to pressurize them. During the pandemic, even if we reach the university premises, the crowd is a lot smaller.”

Student representatives of Pondicherry University faced the same issue.

“In August the university asked students to pay the entire fee which included lab fees and sports fees. We told the administration that this was not feasible and 45 departments boycotted online classes. The university extended dates till December but by then exams were approaching and students started paying the fees,” said Parichay Yadav, president of Pondicherry University Students Union.

In August 2020, DUSU wrote to authorities requesting relaxation on fee submission. JNU Students’ Union, in the same month, wrote to the respective university authorities requesting a waiver of hostel and mess fee and pushed for reopening hostels for PhD students. Similar demands of reopening colleges for PhD students were raised by MAANU students’ union.

Informal functioning

Students said it is crucial to conduct elections soon for continuous representation of the students. “On the one hand, the university considered us the official union but on the other hand they also issued a notice regarding dissolution of the union. There is a concern among students that there should be an elected democratic body to continue representing the students’ issues. Students have been asking for elections since last October,” said Quadri.

The Lyngdoh Committee report also states that elections “should be held between six to eight weeks from the date of commencement of the academic session”. Some students want the universities to conduct elections soon.

“We are trying to force elections within six months, ideally, just after the state elections are over. None of the universities have opened here in West Bengal so it will be difficult. The administration is largely indifferent regarding student elections,” said Majumdar.

However, many representatives said that elections seem a far-away concern when the students are not even physically present.

“There is no chance of elections being held soon. As soon as the freshers come in they will be busy preparing for exams in July. Later, they will go for vacation. The elections may only happen post August,” said Quadri.

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