Lots of work, little respect

Co-determination is a battle at the uni

UG administrators aren’t too enthusiastic about co-determination, some members of the faculty councils and the university council feel. But their watchdog function is also hampered by the high turnover within the councils. ‘We should be a sounding board, not just an organ that rubber-stamps decisions.’
2 July om 16:30 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 July 2024
om 10:14 uur.
July 2 at 16:30 PM.
Last modified on July 3, 2024
at 10:14 AM.
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Door Giulia Fabrizi

2 July om 16:30 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 July 2024
om 10:14 uur.
Avatar photo

By Giulia Fabrizi

July 2 at 16:30 PM.
Last modified on July 3, 2024
at 10:14 AM.
Avatar photo

Giulia Fabrizi

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For almost three years, the policy plan for hiring academic staff at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences (BSS) was being developed before the faculty council saw it for the first time. ‘A plan of hundreds of pages that we had little time to review’, says Laurent Krook, the council chair.

It wasn’t even one plan, but three separate ones: a professorship plan, an HR staff plan, and a revised tenure-track policy. If the council had issues with any part, they had no choice but to reject the entire package.

‘The plan significantly impacts staff, but by the time it reached us, it had already been reviewed by various bodies’, says Krook. ‘This put pressure on the administration to get it approved to save money. So, what is our role beyond providing some minor feedback?’

Krook’s complaint seems indicative of how participatory decision-making is perceived at the UG. The faculty councils (f-councils) and university council (u-council) are democratically elected bodies meant to counterbalance the administration and scrutinise their decisions. However, a UKrant survey and interviews with five council members reveal that they often feel undervalued by the administrators.


Last year, former education minister Robbert Dijkgraaf allocated over 11 million euros to strengthen participatory decision-making. The funds were to be used for better compensation for council work, training, and communication. Only when the basic conditions are met, he argued, can a council effectively perform its important role.

So how is participatory decision-making faring at the UG? To find out, UKrant sent a survey in April to all members of the u-council, f-councils, and service councils (elected participatory bodies of departments such as the UB and CIT). The questionnaire was sent to nearly 160 people, 49 of whom filled it out in its entirety.

I feel the u-council is being manipulated

Responses were more often from staff (36) than students (13). Most respondents were in their first year of council participation (27), followed by those with two to five years (18), those with one to two years (3), and one person with more than five years.

Except for the medical faculty’s O&O council, at least one person from every other council completed the survey. Some councils were better represented than others, which means the survey can’t be said to be representative. However, it does paint a picture of how council members generally feel about participation at the UG.

There is much room for improvement. Although many respondents are generally satisfied with how they perform their work and collaborate with other council members, they have numerous complaints about the provision of information, support, and the role of the council.

Late documents

Information provision is a significant hurdle for council members. Only 7 of the 49 respondents answered a resounding ‘yes’ to the question of whether the council receives all relevant documents in time to study them before meetings. Most (27) said ‘usually’, 11 said ‘sometimes’, and 4 members said ‘usually not’.

Although all councils have agreements on when documents should be received (often a week before the meeting), this is often insufficient time to study the documents thoroughly, especially on major issues such as annual budgets or personnel or education reform plans.

Another issue raised by multiple council members is that it is not just about timeliness but also the quality of the documents. Guido Visman, a council member for the Science faction of the u-council, is emphatic. ‘I feel the u-council is being manipulated by the board of directors, especially by the organisation behind it that provides documents’, he says.

‘Either our questions remain unanswered, or we are suddenly being flooded with information at the last moment, leaving no time for critical review.’ When the council members ask critical questions, he says, the response is often along the lines of ‘the process is already underway’ or ‘why are you only raising this now?’

No real participation

This sentiment is echoed in other councils. ‘We should be a sounding board, not just an organ that rubber-stamps decisions’, says Bob van der Borg, a council member at the Faculty of Arts. ‘But we are often only involved in large projects at the end. By then, it has been discussed with ten different bodies, leaving no room for genuine council input.’

We are often only involved at the end

Administrators are then often frustrated by critical questions and comments, according to council members, even though they are not necessarily against major plans but merely want to understand them better.

Visman believes this can only change with a large-scale behavioural shift. ‘Both from the council, by being more alert to developments, and from the board, by demanding good documents. Until then, it’s a continuous tension between the council, the board, and the organisations providing the documents.’

High turnover

There is also the issue of high council turnover. Especially students, who are elected annually, usually serve only one term. But even among staff, who are elected biennially, turnover can be high.

‘It’s quite challenging to find your way’, says Krook. This was his first year, and six other staff members, as well as all the students, were also starting their first term. ‘A lot is already set, such as meeting dates with the administration, pre-meetings, and certain recurring topics. As a new member, it’s hard to see where you can actually make an impact.’

His predecessor advised him to remember that it is his meeting: the council’s, not the administration’s. ‘Yet we often find ourselves in a situation where the faculty administration sets the agenda. Or, for instance, decides when topics are discussed confidentially.’

After nearly a year, he feels the council can get more topics on the agenda, but the question remains how much actual room there is for that. ‘We have so many standard topics. If you’re new and have never seen a financial statement, all your time goes into that.’


What would help a council function better organisationally is its own administrative support, like a council secretary or clerk. The u-council has these roles: an independent chair, a clerk, a minute-taker, and a translator. ‘That’s a crucial reason why the council runs smoothly in that regard’, says Janet Fuller of the Personnel faction. Their presence ensures continuity in the council.

As a new member, it’s hard to see where you can actually make an impact

The minutes are drafted, and administrative tasks, such as collecting and forwarding documents, making agendas, and arranging experts, are taken care of as well, so the council members don’t have to do that.

But that’s usually not the case with f-councils, where often the chair, like Krook, takes on many of these tasks. And that takes a lot of time. He regularly spends over ten hours a week on council work, which was not compensated at BSS until this year.

The compensation difference between faculties is significant. While students are generally satisfied with their compensation (often financial), this is not always true for staff. The biggest complaint is that they do not have enough time to properly perform their council duties. ‘People need to be given time’, says Krook. ‘Otherwise, you can’t prepare adequately and represent the community’s views.’

Going the extra mile

Although many council members are generally satisfied with how their council operates, they are frustrated that they cannot go the extra mile: raising issues, gathering extra information, and consulting the community. This is partly about how much time a council member gets but also how the council organises itself.

At one meeting, only two of the nine student members were present

‘At the beginning of the year, student members’ attendance at our meetings was high’, says Michal Tesnar, a student council member at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘But as the year progressed, their attention waned. At the end, only two of the nine members attended one meeting.’ He feels too many students took the position to enhance their CVs.

‘Because of that, our student faction hardly submitted any memos’, he says. ‘And if you’re alone commenting on a large document, you feel your impact is limited. It’s nice that it’s discussed and noted in the minutes, but you can’t do much more.’

More attention to training and guidance at the beginning of the year would have helped, he believes. ‘That wasn’t the case for us; we had to learn as we went.’


Tesnar is also frustrated by the council’s lack of visibility among those who elect them. ‘If only 20 percent of students vote, you don’t have a solid student representation. There needs to be more visibility.’

Other council members agree, though they believe they also have a role in this. ‘If we want to initiate behavioural change, we need to make ourselves visible’, says Visman.

For example, if a topic concerns a specific department, the u-council could go there. ‘The u-council comes to you. We should be visible because we are there for everyone. This shifts us from complaining about needing more information to seeking a better understanding of a situation.’

The BSS f-council plans a similar initiative. ‘Our communication currently goes through the faculty administration, which isn’t as it should be because we are supposed to be independent’, says Krook. Now, the members have agreed to write a quarterly news update on what is going on within the council.

‘We want to be transparent with the community about how things are going. It might create some friction, but we’ll see’, says Krook. ‘More importantly, we hope to visit more departments to ask: what’s happening on your work floor? That way, we can also set the agenda.’