The duties of university staff-student consultative committees have been steadily rising. Millions of euros in coronavirus support are flying around, workload is constantly increasing, student enrolment is growing and meanwhile the quality of education has to keep getting better. Student representatives are involved in these discussions (and decisions).
Van Engelshoven thinks it’s all right on track. The relationship between university administrators and staff-student consultative committees is “generally good”, she informed the House of Representatives in a letter. In her view, management culture in higher education has made progress since the consultative committees were given more influence.
Their role last changed with the “Strengthening Administrative Capacity Act” of 2017. Since then, the committees have right of approval on the general outline of the budget, whatever those general outlines might be. It went along with eliminating the basic student grant: instead of money, students got a little bit of influence.
Can staff-student consultative committees be made better? Sure, the minister admits, but she’s discussed the results of the Berenschot report with all the umbrella organisations in higher education, and she’s convinced they will take them on board. Van Engelshoven will also be meeting with student organisations.
At the beginning of this year the minister already gave extra funding for staff-student consultative bodies. After all, there are plans to revise quality control (“accreditation”) in higher education: the universities in particular would like to keep certification of their degree programmes in their own hands. To do so, internal oversight has to be geared to that purpose and according to Van Engelshoven that means you need strong staff-student representation.
But further strengthening of staff-student committees isn’t necessary, the minister believes. She doesn’t see much in legally mandated training budgets or minimum honoraria, nor is she advocating additional powers. But what about the fact that sometimes too few candidates are nominated or that the turnout for elections remains low? The minister has little to say on these matters.
Not enough time
The Berenschot report, which is based on numerous interviews and hundreds of surveys of consultative representatives, does actually reveal that things usually go well. But not always. One example: nearly thirty percent of committee members say that they don’t have enough time to read through proposals. Another: more than one in ten thinks the quality of the deliberations with administrators is below par.
In late November of 2020, student members of the Eindhoven university council also called for an expansion of the number of hours per week they’re allowed to spend on their co-determination task. That number is currently eight, while council members actually spend an average of 24 hours per week carrying out this task, member of student faction Groep-één Naomi Amsing said at the time.
Sometimes committees have to argue with their university’s board about the interpretation of the law: which issues are members entitled to voice views about and which issues fall outside their remit? Matters of form take up so much time that they don’t get to discuss the content. “This is usually seen as an indication of more difficult relations between consultative bodies and administrators”, Berenschot notes.
But in some cases representatives have to put their own house in order. Only a slim majority is properly informed about their legal duties and powers. “It’s noticeable that this percentage is relatively low”, the authors comment.
It would probably help if that information was more easily accessible for everyone. Other tips offered by Berenschot: provide proper training and good administrative support; set up a clear calendar for the whole year; consider appointing an independent chairperson; maintain contact with support groups.
But will such improvements eradicate all difficulties? Administrators also sometimes get irritated with the staff and student representatives. The programme committees in particular come in for a lot of criticism. Faculty administrators sometimes speak of “out-of-control democratisation” and “formalised gabfests”.
Administrators also occasionally doubt student motivation: are they only participating in such a committee for a line on their CV? And whose voice do they actually represent? Usually its the “better students” who sit on the consultative committees, and they are often “harder” on students who aren’t doing as well.
You might think that the coronavirus crisis has had a big impact on staff and student consultations, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Members could of course only meet online, but that also had its advantages: members attended meetings more often. “It is more difficult to speak to each other informally, which increases the distance and makes the relationship more formal”, Berenschot suggests. But this didn’t cause any major problems.
It remains important to keep the conversation going. The minister refers to the “collective interest” she, the umbrella organisations, the student associations and the institutions have in “stimulating and facilitating the continuation and further development of a good management culture”.