Open up university governance for internationals

Student governance was never an activity I intended to take up, let alone be a pioneer in. However, my role as the first international faculty council member at the Faculty of Law, Economics, and Governance (REBO) has provided some unique insights and challenges.

Unsurprisingly, the official language at Utrecht University is Dutch, meaning that most documentation and official business is conducted in Dutch. Personally, I wouldn’t want to change that, despite some strong opinions from within my own Economics department against this. I greatly respect the fact that we are located in The Netherlands, Dutch people make up most of the students and staff, and it is the Dutch community who we influence the most.

As of 2015 about six percent of UU students are internationals and around 25 percent of staff, but the University does have ambitions to increase the number of people coming from non-Dutch backgrounds by 2020. I believe representation in student-staff governance should adapt to these changes as well and that language barrier should not be an obstacle for those interested in getting involved.

International students can be valuable assets to governance bodies in the universities due to their fresh perspectives and sensitivity to challenges that native Dutch students may not face. A broader range of experiences and exposures simply brings new ideas and creates synergies in the system that would not be possible otherwise. Over eighty master programs are English-taught, but it is more difficult to get masters students in general, let alone international ones, involved in student governance because they carry a heavier workload and selections for governing bodies may take place in the previous academic year, before the graduate students arrive. International students may also best represent issues that exchange students face, a group for whom consequences may be overlooked, particularly in relation to integration and housing.

Moreover, if one in four staff members is international, this is not reflected in the staff members who participate in university governance. Because staff have the advantage of serving longer terms on boards and councils, governance participation by international staff may be the best strategy to keep the perspective of internationals present.

That being said, internationals should show intention to adapt to university culture as well. Budgets for trainings and workshops exist for personal and skills improvement; perhaps an allocation could be made for language trainings also. In my experiences this year, a “passive understanding” of Dutch has been accepted more and more in Dutch-language activities. Basic reading and listening skills have been most important and responding in English has been acceptable. Peers have also been quite understanding and eager to help improve my language ability.

I think Utrecht University as a whole is reaching a crossroads; keeping the Dutch tradition and adapting to globalization is a dilemma faced by many institutions. However, I hope that my participation in the REBO faculty council is just the first step for more opportunities in university governance participation to open up.