TU/e shares student ombudsperson with Utrecht

Utrecht University and TU/e are appointing a shared ombudsperson for their students. Recruitment for the post, which is for a day and a half per week, is now underway. Whether this weekly day and a half will be enough for the ombudsperson to serve both institutions properly will be reviewed every six months. According to Daisy van der Schaft, manager at ESA Policy Advice and Projects, by giving students an independent contact person, this appointment fills a gap. TU/e's employees have had their own ombudsperson since December 2021.

photo Prostock studio / Shutterstock

A day and a half per week, isn't that a little meager for this position? After all, taking the two institutions together, we're talking more than 52,000 students, the potential target group for this new student ombudsperson. According to policy officer Daisy van der Schaft, the day and a half and the shared service are deliberate choices because the new officer isn't expected to be very busy at first. “We've drawn this conclusion based on an earlier study and conversations we've had with students,” tells Van der Schaft. “We've decided to do this with Utrecht because for some years now TU/e has been collaborating with Utrecht in a knowledge alliance.” UMC Utrecht and Wageningen University are also members of this alliance.

"TU/e already has an extensive support network of individuals and offices that students can turn to if they have a problem or complaint," says Van der Schaft. Back when the social safety campaign was launched in 2021 a student guide to social safety was created. “Various avenues of help and support are available to students. As well as academic advisors and student counselors and psychologists, they have access to confidential contact persons (the CCPs) within the associations. Then there are the general confidential counselors. The ombudsperson for students will sit at the end of this chain. They will be called upon only when an impasse has been reached in the preceding stages and an independent opinion is required.”

Second-line support

The job advertisement (only in Dutch and posted online last week in Utrecht and this week in Eindhoven) states that the ombudsperson ‘is a new role intended to serve (groups of) students who have a problem that has arisen during their studies. This may have left them with a question, dilemma or conflict and mediation by the complaints coordinator at departmental level has not produced a satisfactory outcome⁠. As such, this role provides second-line support in those situations in which the student believes they have been wrongly or unfairly treated by persons or offices of the university⁠.’

Does this mean that the ombudsperson can be called upon when a student disagrees with an exam result or assessment? Van der Schaft: “No, there are other bodies for dealing with those issues, like the examination committee or complaints committee. But if a student strongly suspects that a lecturer or supervisor has personal reasons for repeatedly awarding too low a grade or assessment, then they should indeed be raising the matter with the ombudsperson. Having said that, the core of the ombudsperson's work will be cases where transgressive behavior may be involved. Intimidating behavior is one form of this behavior, another is conduct of a sexual nature.”

The ombudsperson has the power to have an investigation carried out, an important tool. Van der Schaft: “If, having looked at multiple cases, the ombudsperson feels that further independent investigation is required, they can set this up and then subsequently issue an independent recommendation.”

Independent party

Something that needs to be made clear is that the ombudsperson always acts as an independent party, says Van der Schaft. “The ombudsperson isn't on the side of the person bringing the complaint nor of the accused person.” In the job advertisement this is described as follows: ‘You are an independent moderator who aims to clarify problems, to mediate and get parties talking to each other again. You are always focused on looking for ways to resolve issues⁠. As an intermediary you play a role in restoring mutual trust and understanding.⁠’

Recruitment for the post is now underway and both institutions say they are looking for someone who is an authority in this field⁠. ‘You have knowledge and experience of conflict mediation, settling complaints and investigating complaints, and you are able to spot patterns and trends among complaints⁠’.

The successful applicant will also have a ‘sensitivity to the organization’ and ‘demonstrable experience of the dynamic and political-administrative relationships within a (culturally) diverse working environment⁠.' The ombudsperson must also have a well-developed sense of cultural diversity. Inge Adriaans, policy officer for International Affairs at ESA, says that being attuned to cultural diversity is increasingly important given the strong growth in the numbers of foreign students at TU/e and the university in Utrecht.

When it comes to transgressive behavior and the imbalance of power in working relationships and all the changes in this area, there's one thing that Adriaans and Van der Schaft could not agree more on. “At the end of the day it's all about behavioral change and behavioral change simply takes time,” says Adriaans. The appointment of a student ombudsperson can also be seen in this light.

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