Don’t take representation for granted
Why you really should go vote this week
It’s quiet for a few seconds on the other side of the line. What is Hannah Jelkmann most proud of accomplishing on the university council over the past year? ‘That’s a difficult question’, she says. ‘We’ve worked on so many things: extending the university library’s opening hours, lowering the BSA, student housing, providing free Dutch courses for international students…’
She falls silent again. ‘It is just really important that students can be involved in these types of discussions.’
Hannah (20) is one of twelve students on the university council, the UG’s highest decision-making body. She’s a member of student party SOG, which has five seats. As a first-year student of liberal arts and sciences, she became involved in university politics, and now, together with seven other students and twelve staff members, she’s tasked with monitoring and advising the board of directors.
They meet eleven times a year to discuss all sorts of issues. ‘There are two sides to every decision made’, Hannah says. ‘We are the ones who take into account what something can mean for students.’
International student interests
23-year-old Nirva Portugal, a chemical engineering student, is a faction member of the other big student party in Groningen: Lijst Calimero. ‘Being an international student from Mozambique myself, I wanted to stand up for the interests of other international students’, Nirva explains.
We are able to show what is happening inside our minds
In the past year, she and other faction members have worked hard on emphasising the problems students face because of the pandemic. ‘We tried to make everyone aware that they are having a really difficult time’, she says. ‘These are the kinds of issues where a student perspective is needed. We are able to show what is happening inside our minds.’
Lijst Calimero collected five hundred personal stories from students who were struggling during the corona crisis and used them to underline their plea that the BSA should be lowered. It proved to be a powerful tool: the BSA was ultimately lowered by 10 ECTS. ‘We’re really proud that we could contribute to this discussion’, Nirva says.
But student participation hasn’t always been the norm at Dutch universities. To understand how that changed, we have to travel back to the late 1960s. Until then, students had zero say in the decision-making, as there were no student factions on any of the councils. Tensions about this rose until, in May 1969, a group of seven hundred students occupied the Maagdenhuis, the administrative centre of the University of Amsterdam, demanding control over their own education.
The police blocked all entrances to prevent provisions from getting in, but the students managed to smuggle food in via an improvised bridge to another building. When, five days later, the Amsterdam mayor and aldermen decided to end the occupation, the students’ point had been well and truly made. The Lower House passed the University Reform Act, which gave students more influence. University councils were established on which both students and staff members had seats.
I really appreciate how visible democracy is here
Throughout the years, student participation and the decision-making processes were refined. The current Higher Education and Academic Research Act, which was introduced in 2010, gives all UG employees and students the right to vote and stand for election to the university council and their faculty council.
The Act also states that the university council can take the initiative to develop new policies and has the right to consent and advise on policy proposed by the university board. That proved useful in 2018, when sixteen out of twenty-four council members successfully spoke out against the UG’s plans to open a branch campus in Yantai, China. They had many concerns, among them that academic freedom would be curtailed there.
But it’s not just on the highest level that students can make a difference. Nicole Rodriguez (22) has been a member of the University College faculty council for two years, and she’s happy to be able to represent student interests there. ‘I was really drawn to the idea of bringing your own ideas and views into your education’, she says. ‘If you and your fellow students see things that can be improved, you can actually play a role in changing this. I have worked on improving communication with students, for example.’
All three students realise that their role on these representative bodies is important, but that it’s often taken for granted in the Netherlands. ‘Before I came to Groningen, I studied in Geneva for a year’, says Nicole. ‘There was no option there to participate in any way. When I came here, I was really surprised by how well things have been arranged here.’
My German friends didn’t know what was going on at their uni
‘I really appreciate how visible democracy is at the uni’, says Nirva. ‘In other countries, you often don’t get the full picture and you don’t know how the decision-making process works’, she says. ‘Here you can find information every step of the way. It’s the transparency that’s really valuable.’
Hannah agrees. ‘There’s a clear outline at the UG of how decisions are made. But when I listened to my friends in Germany, it seemed like they didn’t know what was going on at their university, especially with decisions regarding corona. It’s not always a given that students are as well-informed as we are.’
Nirva, Hannah and Nicole are very positive about the opportunities they’ve had to be involved at the UG. ‘We’re a group of students who defend other students’, Nirva says. ‘We ensure that decisions line up with their perspective.’ Hannah feels strongly that a top-down approach wouldn’t work. ‘We have to involve students. It’s the balance that we need.’
Still in doubt who to vote for? UKrant and the Groninger Studentenbond created an election tool to give you some insight into the various parties’ views.
You pick the view that you agree with most and move on to the next statement. Once you’ve answered all ten statements, you’ll get an overview of which party matches your views best.