Student Participation: “Pre-cooked”, “Rubber-stamps”, and Heated Debates

Joint interview Michiel van der Velden en Ralph van Ierland

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Student Participation: “Pre-cooked”, “Rubber-stamps”, and Heated Debates

Participation, boundless dedication, and gaining experience with governance—these are the threads that connect Michiel van der Velden and Ralph van Ierland. Both became student members of the University Council. Michiel took office in 2002, whilst Ralph assumed the role in 2020, both confronting the Executive Board to assess and possibly revise the university’s policies. Over a period of almost twenty years, the energy and strategic power of their interactions hardly seem to have changed—something that becomes evident during their conversation.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

Heroes Past and Present

The theme of this lustrum year, which marks TU/e’s 65th anniversary, is ‘Heroes like you.’  In keeping with this theme, Cursor will publish a series of double interviews throughout the year with the motto ‘Heroes Past and Present.’ TU/e employees with proven track records, still working at the university or no longer under employment, are matched with their counterparts from today. In all possible fields: science, policy, or student life. This time we give the floor to alumnus Michiel van der Velden en master's student Ralph van Ierland. 

The room in Atlas, where the University Council now holds its meetings with the Executive Board, is squeaky clean. The room is divided into areas in light grey and dark anthracite—a colour scheme with an administrative function. Two clocks hang opposite each other on a wall. According to one, it is twilight in Tokyo, whilst the other notes that it is dawn in New York. However, appearances are deceptive. They have empty batteries and time has stopped—a sign that the corona crisis is still raging. Since last March, the U-Council has met exclusively online.

For Ralph van Ierland, the empty conference room leaves him feeling conflicted. “After only a few weeks, we switched to digital conferencing, because we had no other choice. Whilst we have made a lot of progress, personally, I think it is a shame. This conference room just has something special. The set-up, the microphones, the atmosphere, that is precisely what makes it all so real. Since becoming a member of the council, I have experienced only a single U-Council meeting here, in February 2020. Ever since, everything has been run via Microsoft Teams. That is a completely different experience.”

Because the campus is almost completely deserted and the appointment of a successor for the student fraction Groep-één did not proceed as planned, Ralph has extended his work for the U-Council by six months. As Ralph states: “In the hope that during those six months, I might still be able to attend a meeting here. Although at the moment, that seems increasingly unlikely.”

Memory Lane

Michiel van der Velden recognises these feelings. Before his meeting with Ralph, that morning he took a trip down memory lane, walking across the campus. The route leads over the Groene Loper to the Traverse building. The former Administration Building is empty and awaiting a major renovation. "I would have very much liked to have seen the inside of the Dorgelo room where the meetings used to take place again, but everything has been sealed off."

In 2002 and 2003, Michiel still regularly sat in that room to discuss the Campus 2020 plan with his fellow council members. “At the time, that was still very much in the future—a distant future that has now been realised. Now I am walking around in it myself, unbelievable. In my memory, the old route to the Traverse building was a maze of little streets. Thanks to this Groene Loper, it has become wonderfully spacious.”

The conference room just has something special. The set-up, the microphones, the atmosphere, that is precisely what makes it all so real.

Ralph van Ierland
council member Groep-èèn
Governance Work

Engagement is the key word that links Ralph and Michiel. “But it was also just a fun thing to do”, Michiel adds. “It is a wonderful club to be a part of. It provides you with a completely different view of the university than you would have if you only studied there. I was 22 years old and in one and a half years, I learned so much from working for the council. I had no previous experiences with student participation, but I had been both a volunteer and a board member in student organisations such as CHEOPS and the Progressive Party (PF). We made notes and did research in working groups, so in terms of content, that was good preparation.”

Ralph: “That is quite similar to my own entry into the U-Council. I was 24 and has previously been active in the study association GEWIS, including a year on the board. Actually, I did not have much experience with student participation either. A friend from the board of GEWIS was looking to find a successor for his work in the U-Council. During a game of table football, he asked: ‘Well, is it not something for you, Ralph?’ I had absolutely no idea. Later we talked more often about his experiences in the council. The interaction and participation in matters such as education at the university; that indeed very much appealed to me.”

Study Delay

Michiel: “Working for the U-Council was almost impossible to combine with my studies. When I held the position, there was no bachelor-master trajectory and whilst in that respect, things went a little smoother, I still got delayed. Of course, it also depends on what you make of it. I put far too much time into it myself. However, that does mean you achieve more and that makes it more fun to do.”

Ralph: “I do recognise that a little—investing a little too much time and energy. If at a certain point you end up spending thirty hours a week on it, there is not much time left to study. This year I counted the amount of time I put into my work for the council a few times and arrived at an average of 27 hours—and that is when I was quite conservative in my calculations. When I joined the council as a master’s student, it was definitely not easy for me to combine my work with my studies”.

Staff Group

Michiel: “Do you also have that—a certain feeling of pride that your group puts in more time and takes it more seriously than the others? With us, you sometimes saw a difference with the staff group. As a student, you were a bit more flexible, and you could easily put in more time and leave other things. For staff members, it was much more difficult to combine this with their regular jobs. They were often less well prepared. Whilst perhaps you would actually expect students to be less professional, often they were actually much better prepared.”

Ralph: “I really appreciate the fact that the staff group gives students the opportunity to take on those tasks. In the U-Council, we have several committees that discuss the documents before the meeting, and there are also committees that are chaired by a student. I can really appreciate that, because as a student, you really develop and experience the perspective from both sides. It is not the case that a staff member, just because he or she has been on the council for three or four years, overrules a student. You really have the opportunity to act as an equal, and that is also how you are perceived.”

Michiel: “In my time, that really differed from person to person. In the beginning, everyone had to prove themselves, but at a certain moment, policy officers and administrators would realise: This student comes well prepared or can throw up a surprise. If they come up with something, we do well to pay attention. Also, because I was an active student both before and after my time as an official member, as a student I was seen as a kind of semi-employee.”

Ralph: “It also helps that the policy officers are often very open to you now, which means that you are informed in advance and can ask the Executive Board the deeper, strategic questions during the public meetings.”

Less “Precooked”

Michiel: “In my opinion, it used to be a little less ‘precooked’. We received documents with little participation in advance. In that sense, we were confronted more by the board. Of course, we read the documents and asked questions about them, but your own research was what really made the difference. The big debates usually came about when you put forward an initiative or discovered something yourself. Sometimes that was also appreciated by the board. Perhaps there was a little more discussion than there is now.”

Ralph: “During the last election campaign, a few students asked me: ‘What do you do, and what do you actually achieve on the U-Council?’ Sometimes that can indeed be difficult to put into words, because after all, we are a participation body. We try to address issues at an early stage as much as possible. Before new policy is discussed during the U-board meeting, a document goes through a stage of development, sometimes several iterations, passing through a number of different bodies. However, this also means that it is not always clear where a certain proposal came from. Sometimes you may come up with a good idea, but it ends up being part of a process that can take a year and a half. When it then finally makes it to the U-Council meeting, nobody remembers where the idea originated.”

According to Ralph, early involvement offers more opportunities to think along and steer documents in a certain direction. “If you are only allowed to express your objection at the end of the process, and you are proved right, it is difficult for the board to change the entire document. So, it is also in the board’s best interest to ask students and staff for their opinions in the early stages.”

Michiel: “Definitely. In my time, for example, we were presented with a reorganisation plan during a meeting. New jobs had already been promised to the staff. The council did not agree. Yes, that was a painful moment.”

In my opinion, it used to be a little less ‘precooked’. We received documents with little participation in advance.

Michiel van der Velden
Alumnus and member of former fraction PF
Me, Myself, and I

Neither of them really believes in the age of “selfishness”. According to Michiel, this is a recurring story. “Well, it used to be different, but not necessarily better. I do see new generations becoming more involved. The fact that the university is so involved in sustainability and has a ‘Green Office’ would have been unthinkable in my time. That was just an ideal for students, something you had to fight for. Now, fortunately, these things have become self-evident.”

Ralph: “I find it difficult to compare. The financial freedom of today’s students is less, because of the loan system. This means it is no longer an obvious choice to take a year out of your studies to do council work. Yet, when I see how much enthusiasm there is for actively participating in associations and student teams, I get the impression that students increasingly enjoy making a contribution. They often put themselves in the second or third place, prioritising how they can improve the team or the association.”

Allies and Opponents

In the U-Council, opponents and allies can sometimes switch camps surprisingly quickly. Michiel knows this only too well. “In my time, the programme directors decided that it should be possible to teach in all languages. The teachers and students just had to accept that. In practice, it would of course only be Dutch and English, but we objected out of principle, and with success. By doing so, we helped the Executive Board to strengthen their position in relation to the faculties and programme directors—the very same board that you were diametrically opposed to with respect to other issues.”

Ralph: “Indeed, a recognisable situation. As U-Council we strive for uniformity and we often work together with the board. Of course, you sometimes clash with the faculty councils and faculty boards. However, vice versa, the faculties also make good proposals that we discuss with the Executive Board. So allies and opponents sometimes switch places. In everything that happens, we always try to find the best moment to involve us as students in the earliest possible stage. We do this together with the board, and they are fairly open to that.”

Not a Strong Position

Michiel: “The difficulty is that, formally speaking, your position as a member of the U-Council is not that strong. On most issues, you only have the right to advise. Whilst on other issues, you do have the right to consent, even that can often be easily circumvented by a member of the Executive Board. In this respect, whatever you can achieve, or whatever little influence you can exert, should be seen as a win. You do not have the same strong position as the Executive Board. Of course, how you deal with this yourself is decisive—whether or not you allow people to walk over you and take away your rights. It happened often enough in my time that the majority of the council members preferred not to make a fuss about certain matters and just left it at that.”

Ralph: “Of course you can refuse consent and then the board has to appeal. However, the threshold for not giving consent is high. You want to have the best possible outcome, rather than for things to just come to a standstill. In such cases, we always try to press the issues that matter most to the students. However, if the board really wants something, it can be difficult, for sure. Especially for students who have only been on the council for three or four months. When you are not yet aware of what your strengths are, it can be pretty tough. Michiel, do you have any tips for us?”

You do not have the same strong position as the Executive Board.

Michiel van der Velden
Alumnus and member of former student fraction PF

Michiel: “Especially at a technical university, you cannot expect everyone to be as vocal. You must not expect there to be that many witty speakers or good debaters. You are a student and not a professional administrator. In that respect, you are not on the same level. However, that is not necessary either, because you are a student representative, and hence it is mainly with them that you should connect. You should not become a member of the board. Think and work mainly from within yourself, with your own initiative and what you would like. That is equally as important as carefully reading all the documents and responding to them. Try to contribute something every now and then, a new or important point that remains underexposed and that you yourself can research and take initiative for. Then you will have more added value than when you are just talking along. It is precisely as a student that you can bring a completely different perspective and offer something that a director or policy officer just would not think of at all.”

Ralph: “I think that is sound advice. Sometimes you get snowed under by all the documents, and then your own ideas disappear into the background. You have to keep asking yourself why you joined the U-Council in the first place. When I look back now, we often aim to reach consensus with the board, representing the students’ interests as best we can and drawing attention to the issues that we as students find important.”

However, what he likes most is coming up with a solution or proposal, based on his knowledge of the administrative agenda and feedback from the students themselves. “If I succeed, that gives me a lot of positive energy!”

For half a century now, students and employees at the TU/e have had the right to participate in its policy making. Participation was first implemented in 1969. Two years later, following changes in the law on higher education, the former Eindhoven Technical University established the first Council for Higher Education in the Netherlands. This was renamed the University Council in 1986 when Eindhoven was granted university status.

The interviewees

Michiel van der Velden was born in 1979 in Roosendaal. He completed his studies in architecture at TU/e in 2007. From mid-2002 until the end of 2003, he was a member of the (then) PF student group in the University Council. In 2005-2006, he was secretary of Morgen, the national student network for sustainable development. Since 2007, he has been working as a consultant at Buildsight BV, a market research and consultancy agency for the construction industry. In addition, he is an active member of the Dutch political party GroenLinks, where he is currently interim chair of the provincial division for North Brabant.

Ralph van Ierland was born in 1995 in Geldrop. After attending high school at the Augustinianum in Eindhoven, he began a bachelor's degree in Technical Mathematics in 2014, renamed Applied Mathematics during his studies. During the academic year 2017-2018, he was a board member of the study association GEWIS. Upon completion of his bachelor in 2019, Van Ierland embarked upon a master's in Industrial and Applied Mathematics. In 2020, he joined the University Council on behalf of student fraction Groep-Één. In addition, he is an active campus promoter for the electronics company Thales.

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