Rights group rejects proposed laws for student politics

A student rights group in Jordan has demanded the withdrawal of draft regulations governing ‘partisan activities’ – activities related to student politics and external political parties – in higher education institutions, arguing they contain no real changes to existing repressive institutional disciplinary systems and fail to guarantee the existence of elected student unions.

The National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights (NCDSR – Thabahtoona) said in a 14 August statement that allowing “political activities” in universities does not require legislation, but a real will for reform represented in “reconsidering repressive disciplinary systems and allowing the establishment of elected student unions”.

It said the government’s draft regulations transform the role of dean of student affairs at universities into an administrative governor “with absolute powers to allow or ban any partisan activity” and even interfere in the details of the activity and amend it in terms of place, time, participants and the nature of the activity itself.

Furthermore, it said the regulations contain “no mention of obligating universities to allow the existence of elected student unions within universities. Rather, [they] indirectly gave universities the right not to allow the existence of elected student unions”.

There was no mention “of any amendments to the disciplinary systems that contradict the freedom of student activity and even criminalise it”, the statement said.

Broader legislative framework

The draft regulations approved by the Higher Education Council and expected to be endorsed by the cabinet, are part of the Political Parties Law enacted last March.

The regulations are in line with the Public Sector Modernization Roadmap 2022–24 published on 30 July which includes a plan for political reforms that will be based on a multiparty system in Jordan.

Speaking at a 15 August meeting with the deans of student affairs at public universities, Crown Prince of Jordan Al-Hussein bin Abdullah II was quoted as saying that universities are “pillars of political modernisation, as they are the incubators of young people with various political leanings”.

He underscored the role of the newly endorsed laws in enhancing the right of citizens, including university students, to engage in political work without restrictions or influence.

He noted the importance of unifying civic education curricula at public universities, and the need to plan specialised courses on political modernisation to be taught to students at the start of the coming academic year.

Awareness-building initiatives

For their part, the deans said they would serve all students across the political spectrum. Furthermore, they would promote student engagement in national platform-based political parties, hold courses on awareness-building relating to political work, train students in debate and dialogue, and activate the role of student clubs.

The demand for awareness courses is in line with recommendations contained in a 2022 academic study, “Attitudes of Jordanian university students towards participation in ideological political parties”, which showed that university students’ participation in political parties is still “much less than the required level” and there was “an urgent need for comprehensive awareness programmes on the role of parties in political life and democratic practice”.

While there are 56 political parties in Jordan in addition to the Islamic Action Front party, the political arm of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood Movement, only 7% of students are systematically affiliated with political parties.

According to the results of a national opinion poll published on 16 August by Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies based at the University of Jordan, the majority of Jordanians (67%) oppose the participation of university students in parties, and only 33% support them.

Furthermore, a vast majority of Jordanians (79%) oppose the establishment of party activities within universities and only 21% support the establishment of party activities within Jordanian universities.

What the new regulations say

Despite concerns from NCDSR, the draft regulations stipulate that university students will not be prosecuted for their political affiliations, or on-campus political activism and that students have the right to practise political activities on campus through clubs, associations or unions in higher education institutions.

These include activities related to political party awareness, activities aimed at introducing the electoral process and activities aimed at encouraging student participation in elections and public affairs, including the holding of seminars and political debates.

The regulations stipulate that the political viewpoints of participating students are those of the students and do not reflect the position or viewpoint of the educational institution. Students are not allowed to collect donations or receive financial support from political parties and are not permitted to conduct any political activity in official university residences.

Students are obligated, while conducting political activity, to maintain the safety of educational facilities, the proper functioning of the teaching process, and not to take any action that hinders the work of the higher education institution.

The regulations require student activists to submit a request to conduct a political activity to the dean of student affairs at least one week in advance. After the approval is issued for the political activities, the dean may amend the time and place of the activity or its programme but will provide justification for the decision.

The dean may stop the political activity during its session if any act is committed that violates the legislation or public order.

Faculty members and all employees of a higher education institution are prohibited from participating in partisan activities practised by students on their campus.

Any institution of higher education is prohibited from showing bias to any political party or influencing students belonging to parties in any way. Higher education institutions are also committed to organise student clubs, unions or societies and to provide students with the opportunity to exercise their right to run and vote in the elections of these organisations, and to express their political identities.

Institutions of higher education that are affiliated with security and military agencies are excluded from the application of the provisions of the regulations.

Finding a balance

Professor Laith Nasrawin from the school of law at the University of Jordan said while students were unhappy about the powers given to deans, both the position of the students and the universities were to some degree justified.

In a 17 August opinion piece, he wrote that although the university environment has its “own peculiarities” as primarily an educational space and a public facility, administrations “should not abuse their right to grant approval for the holding of political activities on campus”.

“It is assumed that the restrictions on partisan activity mentioned in the regulations do not prejudice the essence of the right to practise political work because it aims to set compromise controls between the right of partisan students to practise political work and the obligation of educational institutions to provide its services to affiliated students,” he wrote.

Nasrawin did, however, argue that while a ban on the participation of faculty members in party political activities on campus could be justified, to deprive politically active students of academic guidance and assistance from such faculty was more difficult to justify, particularly in relation to fields such as law, politics and sociology.