Calls for apolitical campuses follow student elections

Calls for university student unions not to drag institutions into political disputes have followed the official announcement of the victory of the Islamist-leaning student union against its leftist rival union in the recent student elections, amid a challenge by the losing union which claims the elections were marred by violence and irregularities.

The General Tunisian Union of Students (GTUS) – supported by the moderate Islamic political party Ennahda – won a landslide victory against its leftist rival union the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) in the 1 March elections of the student representatives in faculty councils. The GTUS claimed 226 (49%) of the seats while UGET won only 147 (27%). Independent students won 129 seats (24%) in the scientific councils.

The results were posted on Facebook on 2 March by Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. The names of the winning students appeared on the ministry website.

While the ministry’s statement noted that the elections had been honest, open and transparent with cooperation from the universities, student organisations and civil society organisations, in their own statement, UGET says the elections were marred by several shortcomings, including verbal abuse and attempts of physical violence. They claim there was an attempt to prevent some UGET observers from attending polling offices and some university administrations failed to be neutral in their assistance to unions during campaigning.

Another 2 March statement from the Banzart branch of UGET claimed there was violence between students of the two unions owing to a GTUS attempt to damage a ballot box.

"This attempt to damage the ballot box, which almost spoiled the atmosphere of the election, was witnessed by the university administration’s staff and election observers," the statement noted.

According to a 4 March report, UGET is challenging the election results. They argue that UGET managed to win 331 seats instead of the 147 seats announced by the ministry.

"We recruited UGET lawyers … and 331 representatives of the students of the union who are confident of winning seats in scientific councils will gather at a protest this week," the UGET Secretary-General Amani Sassi said.

Civil society organisation I-watch, which monitored the elections in coordination with the ministry, issued a preliminary report highlighting a number of shortcomings including weakness in the legal framework, an absence of security leading to clashes among students, and a failure to take into account the specificities of non-Arabic speaking foreign students who have been granted their right to vote this year.

The report also called upon all students of both the Islamist-leaning GTUS and the leftist UGET to take responsibility for not involving universities in political disputes and focus rather on the interests of students and the university.

The call is in line with a 2015 Atlantic Council report entitled Student Unions and Politics in Post-Revolution Tunisia which stated that union structures should “maintain their distance from political and ideological disputes and completely renounce the use of violence”.

"Ben Ali's dictatorial regime stifled political pluralism in Tunisia, so student unions became a tool for practising politics and opposing the regime," the report stated.

However, as a result of an opening up of the public space in Tunisia’s transition, allowing students from political movements and parties to express their opinions directly, Tunisia’s student population no longer needs to use student unions as a back door to political activity, it argued.

Political movements and parties must also help neutralise student unions’ political role, strengthening membership in their own groups and encouraging the development of formal political institutions, it said.

"There is an urgent need to strengthen the environment of union work within Tunisian universities to ensure freedom of association, assembly and demonstration without restrictions, in the framework of respecting the pluralism of student organisations," the report said.

However, higher education expert Hilmi Salem told University World News that student unions should not only act as “the voice of students”, but should also serve as political, economic and social platforms in accordance with the norms and values of democracy.

"The purpose of a university is not only to offer career-ready degrees and produce market-ready graduates but to produce politically and socio-economically conscious and responsible students by facilitating dialectical research," Salem concluded.