Reema Saffarini reports on how active elected bodies are on campuses in the UAE

The last few weeks have been very busy for many university students across the UAE. Campuses were buzzing with activity and excitement.

Anticipation reached peak levels, and many students were surviving on the intoxicating rush of adrenaline.

However, it was not midterms or presentations that caused this hustle and bustle. Nor was it career week. It was simply the student council elections.

During the annual round of elections in most of the universities and colleges in the UAE, students compete vigorously for power with the hope of invoking change in the system and strengthening the student body.

Many students regard these councils as guaranteed sources of fun. They are the organisers of parties, activities and celebrations as well as the providers of food and drinks.

To others, however, they are a support system, particularly for those missing home, facing academic difficulties or those in trouble with the administration.

These councils, unions, guilds, associations, senates or whatever they maybe called, are often dedicated to social activities.

Formally-organised groups

However, in many parts of the world, they are sometimes formally-organised groups that function in many ways like labour unions.

In the UK, for example, student unions in various universities in the country come together under one body - the National Student Union (NSU), through which students can represent their views to external organisations, the media and even the parliament.

In Canada, unions extend their services to include educational institutes and the community. They are known for their political involvement to protect the student body's interests at the university, municipal, provisional and federal government level.

In Finland, student unions are based on a parliamentary model. The general assembly comprising 50 members are elected every two years through open-list elections.

All this shows that college is no longer just about attending lectures, taking exams or writing research papers.

It is also about the ability to participate in the decision-making process be it at college, within the community or in the political arena. It is about introducing change and influencing others.

This prompts these questions: what exactly is the situation of student councils in universities in the UAE? Are they as active as their Western counterparts? What about the possibilities of creating a national student council that serves students across the UAE?

The UAE National Student Union is one of the oldest and largest councils in the country. Established in 1981, it is an independent body dedicated to serving UAE national students in the country and abroad.

Based in Al Ain at UAE University, it has three branch offices in the UK, US and Australia. It has more than 2,000 members, which include nine executive members.

Elections are held once every three years in the central office, while students cast ballots annually in the branch offices.

"The union has two basic goals. One is to create a bridge between the students and university. We represent the students and work on solving their problems be it academic, financial or otherwise," said Nasser Al Za'abi, a member who was previously the union president for two years.

"Our second goal is to nurture students' talents through conducting workshops and organising sporting and cultural activities and events," he said.

The union's concentration, however, is on students and college life more than it is on politics or the economy.

"We organise orientation receptions for new students, we discuss issues of interest to them, we take these issues to the relevant authorities and so on.

"For example, when petrol prices went up recently in the country, we prepared a statement that we sent to President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan. We are always in touch with the students to see to their needs. We also try to connect students abroad with those in the country," he said.

But would the existence of a body that serves UAE national students lead one day to the establishment of a national union for students of all nationalities in the UAE?

The idea appeals to Al Za'abi, who said: "I think it would be a great idea. I believe it can happen, yet we need those who'd take serious steps to achieve it."

Last year, university student councils across the UAE met up in Sharjah University at a Student Assembly, where student and university issues, problems and suggestions were shared and discussed.

"Such an assembly is a first step for students from around the country to meet. It was very interesting as we got to meet and share experiences. Student Councils should meet more often. This might in the end lead to the creation of a national council," Al Za'abi said.

Meeting market needs

The meeting however, led to the establishment of the Higher Colleges of Technology (HCT) Student Council. A step that gained the approval and support of Shaikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Education and Chancellor of HCT, as well as the UAE National Student Union.

The body was founded in August to represent the student councils at the 12 colleges across the country.

Its goals are to organise and coordinate student activities, improve the quality of student work and life and demonstrate the important role of student councils.

Negotiations lasted for almost three months, after which the decision was made to form the council and a constitution formulated.

"The council would meet once every month. We want our opinions to be heard and suggestions implemented," said Rawda Abdul Qader, president of the Sharjah Women's College Student Council.

"Our main focus is to serve students and graduates. To provide them with solutions to some of the issues they face. For example, we want to collaborate with companies and organisations in the marketplace to find jobs for graduates.

"HCT's goal anyway is to meet the needs of the marketplace. We will have a committee dedicated for this issue only," she said.

However, Rawda said, contributions to the political arena are not their focus. "As a society we tend to shy away from politics. Our plans have nothing to do with the economy or politics," she explained.

President of Sharjah Men's College Student Council Ali Al Ansari, however, said that authorities and those in high positions have always welcomed students' suggestions.

"Shaikh Nahyan has always been encouraging. He has been always open to new ideas and listens to what we have to say," he said.

By the students, for the students

But are students aware of the importance of student councils and their role?

"Unfortunately, there are many students who are not cooperative and are fond of criticising. They are the type of people who'd say ‘you are always free and have nothing productive to do, as a result you join a council to fill your time'," he said.

Al Ansari added: "Because of our good relationship with the administration and faculty, some of these students regard us as part of the management and avoid talking to us."

These good relations with the decision makers, however, are what make councils' duties easier.

"We are a council for students and by students. We are the link between the administration and the student body. Good relations with the management is vital," said Muratada Jawad, president of the American University of