UC| Power and Counter-power


At the end of March, the umbrella organisation VSNU presented its first student cabinet. A group of enthusiastic students—a vision of the future for highly educated Dutch people. The VSNU asked politicians to pay more attention to education— to the future, and to the needs of our students. However, the question arises: How does the VSNU itself view these students and their co-participation in policy and decision making? Is it not strange that, in the Dutch context, institutions are still allowed to determine themselves what effort they are willing to put in to enable student participation?

With the presentation of the inaugural student cabinet at the end of March, Dutch universities seemed to have hit the right tone: "Netherlands, Dutch politics, listen to the future!" Eindhoven proudly presented the Minister of Innovation: Dirk van Meer—the driving force behind team CORE, and one of a group of student experts that enables the TU/e and its student community to clearly demonstrate the meaning of innovation.

Yet, people seem unaware that young students can sometimes also be experienced experts. Whilst we see awareness increasing—for example if we look at the youth campaign during the parliamentary elections; the youth think tank corona; Coalitie Y (the one including Tim Hofman); and, latterly, the student cabinet—overall, can we say that the universities themselves are keen to support student participation?

What do these institutions actually do? At the level of individual universities, governance structures resemble that of the government. Just as the government makes policy and the House of Representatives has a monitoring task, a university also has its own ‘House’. We call this co-participation and, in the university context, this role is—amongst other duties—adopted by the University Council. Although each institution might organise things a little differently, by law, student participation is an inherent part of the system.

This offers opportunities and, since we are inherently progressive, we are keen to seize them, right? It turns out that this differs between institutions. If we look at our own university, on many fronts, we are doing fairly well. However, stories about poorly informed councils that are involved in decisions way too late, or are sometimes virtually ignored, are anything but rare. Indeed, it should be clear that the student occupations of the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam that have taken place over the years were not the result of a misplaced comma in a policy document, but rather are an expression of long-term discontent.

Participation must go further than simply throwing a mountain of information at the student participants. Sometimes I think of the television series Suits, which portrays a small law firm that is constantly flooded with information, making it difficult for them to extract the salient points. The same thing seems to happen at the universities, not because they deliberately share too much information, but simply because there are (too) many issues at stake.

It is in the interests of universities and students alike to keep a close eye on current policy directions, and to sound the alarm if things start to go wrong. Indeed, it is precisely because of this shared interest, that it is so important to carefully consider how much capacity is needed to achieve this—the nuance lies in the assessment. Not every detail needs to be checked—that would be an endless, unworkable undertaking—however,  it is precisely in such details that  major policy pitfalls lurk. This makes it very complicated.

In order to find these pitfalls, there has to be sufficient space and time—in this case, with the university and participation councils. In Eindhoven, this space comprises a meagre eight hours per week per council member. If we look at the participation monitor of recent years, we see that these eight hours are less than a third of what university councils across the country consider necessary in order to do their work properly. It is as if the government were saying that the House of Representatives could also make do with fifty seats.

So what is in a few hours? Nothing really. If we look at the laws, it is as if we have an administrative system that does indeed have a House of Representatives to do the monitoring, but at the same time considers it sufficient to pay them only a volunteer fee. In the case of the university council, you could convert those eight hours per week into a graduation allowance of two months per year, which comes down to about €50 per month.

This mechanism threatens to fundamentally weaken the mechanism of student co-participation. Through their finances, the university boards retain their power over co-determination. This is very undesirable, for the students, the government, and in fact, for the universities themselves.

Whilst it is important to note that most universities did enhance their provision, here in Eindhoven, you still get a rather poor deal. For a fee that equals a student assistantship of 4 hours a week, you spend roughly 6 times longer as a council member: approximately 24 hours. That is 24 hours per week, dedicated to ensuring students their right to formally co-determine the route the university is taking.

At a time when the Dutch rule of law is being more hotly debated than ever, I worry about our own rule of law at the level of individual institutions. At a time when all Dutch universities are calling on the government to listen to students, I call on the government to make the universities listen to their students. Set fair and nationally applicable rules for student co-participation and its financial compensation—rules that do justice to what is needed to enact just power: counter-power. Perhaps a nice assignment for the recently installed student cabinet?

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