Co-determination during the crisis: keeping a critical eye in the dark

"Many people are really about to break"

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Co-determination during the crisis: keeping a critical eye in the dark

How do you promote the interests of students and staff members before a university board during a crisis that has made working from home the norm? Cursor caught up with three members of TU/e’s University Council. “The decision-making process is under enormous pressure.”

photo Bart van Overbeeke

Decision making and mutual communication immediately shifted to a higher gear in March, after TU/e was forced to clear its campus and send everyone home, says Kelly Fransen of student faction DAS as she looks back on the beginning of the corona crisis. “Everyone immediately started to contribute ideas and was more willing than ever to respond quickly online.”

Nor did it take long before the next University Council meeting took place, in late March, relatively soon after campus shut down. “The question of course was: what is workable? Are we going to do everything in writing, or is dialogue an option as well?”, says Ralph van Ierland (Groep-één|ESR), Master’s student Industrial and Applied Mathematics.

Martijn Klabbers of staff faction PUR, who works at the department of Mathematics and Computer Science, did initially sense some hesitation: “The first suggestion was to handle everything via mail, perhaps also stemming from some trepidation about the available online possibilities and systems. But a dissenting opinion soon followed. Because you can in fact do the same things online as during a physical meeting. When you have a meeting together, you usually feel the essence of a topic under discussion more quickly, it’s easier to get to the necessary questions or actions.”

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By now, co-determination in times of crisis has proven to be quite workable, at TU/e level at least, all three of them say. And the process hasn’t, apart from its explicitly virtual component, actually changed that much compared to how things were before the corona crisis. For example, all University Council factions still meet on two occasions prior to the council meeting with the Executive Board, Fransen says.

“We receive all the documents in advance; during the first pre-consultation, we discuss the written questions that the different factions intend to ask. This is followed a few days later by the written reply. We then discuss this during the second pre-consultation, which we use to prepare ourselves for the eventual meeting with the Executive Board,” says the Industrial Design student, who is busy working on her Bachelor final project, alongside her work on the University Council.

Test the waters and prepare

A preliminary meeting between the individual factions is perhaps more important now than ever before, Van Ierland believes, especially in light of the tempo in which certain decisions need to be made these days. “First and foremost, you want to take a very critical look at your own questions,” the Master’s student explains. “When you already know the answer, or know where to find it, there’s no need to ask the Executive Board. You also want the preliminary meetings with the entire University Council to run as smoothly as possible. There are eighteen council members at the table after all, as well as the chairman and the secretary; that’s quite a number of people.”

In times like these you sometimes need to make important decisions whose consequences aren’t always that clear

Martijn Klabbers
Member of staff faction PUR

Apart from the usual meeting routine, there’s a weekly or sometimes bi-weekly dialogue between a University Council delegation and Executive Board member Nicole Ummelen, “to test the waters somewhat: what’s coming and how are things going? This allows us the ask questions about the situation in an informal setting, and to prepare ourselves a bit for the documents coming our way,” Van Ierland says.

The preparatory phase may run smoothly, but PUR member Klabbers does feel that there is a bit of a problem with the way in which things are subsequently carried out. Because time for reflection is what he probably misses most during co-determination in the midst of this crisis. “In times like these you sometimes need to make important decisions you would actually rather take a bit more time for. Decisions whose consequences aren’t always that clear, and that may sometimes turn out to be wrong in retrospect. That process is under such enormous pressure. Like prime minister Rutte on a national level, we as a university too are sailing in the mist somewhat - especially in the beginning.”

Van Ierland, too, understands the speed with which the Executive Board had to make certain decisions: “The university also simply wants to provide its students and staff members with clarity. We sometimes had to giveback on planned measures within twenty-four hours. That’s quick, but the board does ask for our input, and their answers were always correct and substantiated. We appreciate that very much, even though we don’t always agree with the content.”

Klabbers: “The Executive Board could also have said: ‘This is all operational and not policy; we can simply decide these matters without involving the University Council.’ Because under exceptional circumstances, administrative boards sometimes gladly use the opportunity to go at it alone.” This doesn’t apply to the TU/e board, he emphatically states, “but I see that co-determination is sometimes considered practically nonexistent within the departments.”

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DAS chairwoman Fransen has the impression that the advice given by the University Council was at least “always taken seriously.” But this doesn’t mean that everyone is always on the same page in the end. For example, the decision on online proctoring - in which students are monitored digitally while taking an exam - wasn’t unequivocally welcomed by the University Council at first, “but in some cases there’s just no other way.”

Van Ierland adds: “I understand that it is a sensitive issue; students don’t feel comfortable taking an online proctoring exam and having to show their student room, as well as depending on technology. That leads to more stress. But the primary reason for using it was to help students and to ensure that they don’t suffer a delay in their studies in these difficult times - but that nuance seems to have completely disappeared in the national debate. We really consider proctoring a last resort, and we believe that exam committees should be critical of it. That’s a caveat we’ve made. And you need to keep monitoring to make sure that it works.”

That is why Klabbers appreciates the fact that the first proctoring exam was followed by an evaluation. “That first exam wasn’t very successful, there were enough reasons to critically evaluate the process and to make sure that it will run more smoothly in Q4.”

We continue to stimulate people to spend a year on the board of an association or a student team

Ralph van Ierland
Member of student faction Groep-één|ESR

The university-wide introduction of Office 356 was a rather tense experience as well, Klabbers says. “Like with proctoring, there was a privacy aspect to this, in part because of the American companies behind it. These are things you need to keep a keen eye on. I’m sure the Executive Board didn’t find these decisions easy either. And perhaps we didn’t always agree, but the decisions were always founded in such a way that we could see eye to eye. You can only evaluate whether it was the right decision or not in the longer term.”

Creating new opportunities

Even though more ‘common’ issues still remain topical, the corona crisis and its consequences are and will remain the most important themes for the time being within the University Council and during the discussions between the factions and the people they represent. “How do students experience the situation, what problems do they possibly face, what do they think of online education, and what part of that do they wish to preserve in the future?”, says Fransen as she sums of a few popular topics of discussion between student group DAS and its supporters.

Groep-één|ESR also wants to use the crisis to “create new opportunities” more than anything else. Van Ierland refers to, among other things, the rapid development of online education in recent months as a result of the crisis. And to the opportunities this offers for implementing blended learning at TU/e more urgently, for example. “But we also still keep our eye on the extracurricular development of students, and we continue to stimulate people to spend a year on the board of an association or a student team - important for our university and your own development.”

Klabbers noticed that certain issues are somewhat delayed during the corona crisis, “such as the discussion of the spring memorandum and possibly the budget for 2021 - despite the efforts of Financial and Economic Affairs,” he emphasizes. “So many things still remain uncertain at this time, on a national as well as a European level.”

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In the meantime, the wellbeing of students and staff members is and remains an important and topical issue for all University Council factions. Van Ierland: “We hear from many students that they can’t wait to see people again, instead of just their laptop screens.” He points out to what he believes to be some excellent initiatives that came about as a result of the fact that several parties, such as the Student Wellbeing Network, collaborate and actively share ideas. The examples he cites include TU/e’s listening line ‘Hear Me’ and the radio station, which was a result of an earlier initiative by study association GEWIS that eventually went on air for ten weeks.

Close to a burnout

But Klabbers nonetheless worries as well - not least about lecturers who took online teaching very seriously and implemented it successfully (“it took us a few months to accomplish many of the things we hoped to have achieved in 2030”), but who are now starting to feel the consequences.

“In the past, you still had time on campus to walk from one meeting to the next. Now, everything is precisely planned and people will spend hours on end behind their computer working hard. Many people are really about to break, close to a burnout - also because the end of this situation isn’t in sight yet. We certainly intend to ask questions about this during the next University Council meeting (which took place last Monday, 15 June, ed.).” No one is hoping for a crisis, but Klabbers nevertheless hopes that it proves to be an “experiment” from which lessons can be learned about how to do things better in the future, “for example by combining the successful aspects of online education with on-campus education.”

I’m starting to miss the conversations you have with people as you walk around the university

Kelly Fransen
Chairwoman of student faction DAS Eindhoven

TU/e wants to innovate - and this is an excellent opportunity to “innovate as we innovate,” Van Ierland believes, such as in online education. Fransen: “Everyone welcomes the flexibility that comes with online education, for example, students can plan more themselves. That can all be taken into account in the education of the future.”

The three University Council members gladly invite students and staff members with ideas about this - either based on positive experiences or negative experiences - to share these with their factions. Because, Fransen says: “I do notice that I’m starting to miss the conversations you have with people as you walk around the university.” Van Ierland adds: “And don’t hesitate to voice your opinion when you disagree with certain things, or with how we think about it. Dissenting opinions keep us sharp and eventually lead to better decisions. Don’t think: ‘All the decisions are made for me, so I’ll keep quiet’.”

He concludes: “In the end, we have a common goal, which is: organizing everything as effectively as possible. You can worry about the things that are missing, but you can also look at what the situation has to offer, and look into alternatives that might even be better than what you had in mind to begin with. I think that’s an important lesson we all learned from this.”

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