DEMOCRACY AND THE RULE OF LAW
07 December 2022
Law on Student Organization in Serbia: Great Powers, Great Responsibilities
It’s been more than a year since the enactment of the Law on Student Organization, which substantially altered the functioning of student government in Serbia, expanding the powers granted to student representatives while formalizing the concept of a student organization. But if we look closer at the fine print, it becomes painfully obvious that certain key deficiencies in the law threaten to undermine the whole struggle for students’ rights.
Legal recognition of student government
The Law puts student institutions outside the previously existing legal framework governing institutions of higher learning in Serbia, the Law on Higher Education, and it also overrides whatever provisions related to student government that exist in statutes of individual institutions themselves. Such an arrangement theoretically provides extremely strong guarantees against interference in student government, something previously unprecedented in our universities. The Law makes it very clear for the first time ever that our government accepts and recognizes the valuable and necessary role of students in governing their institutions of higher learning, while also taking into account the valuable role of student organizations in facilitating development of necessary skills and improving the academic community.
Organizational and financial autonomy of student government
The Law provides for substantial organizational and financial autonomy of students’ parliaments. They have full control over their internal organization, the manner and method of elections, and they also have the right and duty to create their own financial plans. Institutions of higher learning are required by law to provide the necessary facilities and funds for the operation of students’ parliaments, and additional funds may be allocated for student-run extracurricular activities. Like all citizen associations, student organizations are allowed to receive gifts, grants, and donations from interested parties, even outside of academia. Furthermore, student organizations are also entitled to obtain funds via government grants from the relevant ministries, as their activities aimed at improving students’ rights are now deemed by law to be in the public interest.
Extensive voting rights for student representatives
Under the previously existing framework established by the Law on Higher Education, students’ parliaments had the right to appoint a number of representatives to key bodies of their parent institution, but these representatives had no voting rights and were to be included only in discussions strictly related to student matters. The Law on Student Organization dramatically expands the list of subjects which are considered to be of relevance to students, while also granting student representatives full voting rights regarding these subjects. Most importantly, student representatives can now vote for their preferred candidates for their institution’s management, and they can participate in the crafting of the institution’s budget. It can be argued that these reforms are, in fact, so substantial that they nearly recognize students as co-equal partners in governing and managing their institutions, an extremely positive development.
Discriminatory election provisions
Only those students who receive an endorsement from an official student organization, or an unofficial group of students accounting for at least 10% of the student body, are allowed to run for parliament. This provision is hard to reconcile with the Law’s stated purpose of students’ parliaments – allowing students to defend their rights at their institutions. The 10% threshold for informal groups is particularly onerous and insidious. As mentioned before, student organizations are legally a type of citizen association, and the law governing citizen associations requires that they have at minimum 3 founding members, underlining the absurdity of this threshold. It nearly guarantees that all members of students’ parliaments will be nominated by student organizations, which in turn acquire key characteristics of political parties. However, the biggest issue by far is that the Law provides no guarantees for free and fair elections. Student parliaments are entitled to determine the manner and rules of elections as they see fit, with no external oversight of any kind, because their own parent institutions cannot override those decisions. Recall that according to the Law, student government is almost completely autonomous, so quite ironically, the same provisions which give it its powers also make it potentially very undemocratic.
Unfair organization registration procedures
But why is it such a problem that student organizations will largely determine candidates? Can’t new prospective candidates outside of prevailing organizations just form their own student organization and run under its banner? Well, it’s not quite that simple. The Law instructs each institution of higher learning to maintain its own registry of student organizations active among its students, and a student organization can only achieve its full rights under the Law after it’s properly registered. Registration requires several ostensibly bureaucratic steps, but ultimately an organization is only registered if it receives a majority vote from a committee consisting of the student vice-dean, two representatives appointed by the parliament, one teacher, and the institution’s secretary. Since student vice-deans are nominated by parliaments, this means that 3 out of 5 members are already beholden to existing parliaments, allowing prevailing student organizations to simply deny any new potential rivals their rightful registration.
Unclear and warped lines of accountability
Taking into account the previous two points regarding election procedures and registration issues, we are left with a rather troubling conclusion. If students are displeased with the functioning of their student parliament and wish to run as opposition candidates, they have to set up a student organization. However, this organization has to be accepted by a committee beholden to student organizations currently having a majority in parliament in order to be recognized as legitimate. In essence, the “government” has to consent to having an “opposition”, to extend the analogy with political parties. How are students supposed to hold a potentially rogue parliament accountable when that same parliament could simply refuse to allow any opposition to stand against it? If the purpose of student parliaments is to allow students to defend their rights, as the Law states, then it is quite improper to subordinate the machinery of student government to student organizations so thoroughly. This is especially true given the nascent state of student organizing in Serbia and the fact that most students are not members of student organizations, thus having no say whatsoever in how they are run.
Looking at the future
The Law on Student Organization undoubtedly represents a huge step in the struggle for students’ rights and equal opportunity to govern. The Law assuredly puts great faith in students and provides them substantial leverage to shape their institutions, but unfortunately fails to distribute the said powers in a truly equitable and democratic fashion. While the legal recognition of student government, financial and organizational autonomy afforded to it, and full voting rights for student representatives in institution bodies will surely prove immensely beneficial, we cannot forget the other side of the coin. Arbitrary election procedures, unfair denials of student organization registrations, and lack of accountability of parliaments to students could unfortunately prove fatal to the very core aims of the Law. If anything, it is now incumbent upon us students to work to save the Law from its own demons, while pushing for further reforms that will ground its great achievements on a truly solid footing. Until the anti-democratic provisions of the law are remedied, it will be up to students currently involved in student organizing to remain vigilant and keep guarding the rights of all students, not merely the narrow interests of their organizations. As they say, with great power comes great responsibility.