Gabfest or not, minister of education thinks university councils are right on track

UU council meeting. Photo taken in 2019. Source: DUB

The duties of staff-student consultative committees have been rising steadily. Millions of euros in coronavirus support are flying around, workload is constantly increasing, and student enrolment is growing. Meanwhile, institutions must make sure that the quality of education keeps increasing. Student representatives are involved in these discussions (and decisions).

The Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, who serves in the role in a caretaking capacity while the country awaits a new cabinet, thinks it’s all right on track. The relationship between university administrators and these councils is “generally good”, she said to the House of Representatives in a letter. In her view, management culture in higher education has made progress since the consultative committees were given more influence.

Their role last changed with the “Strengthening Administrative Capacity Act” of 2017. Since then, the committees have right of approval on the general outline of the budget, whatever those general outlines might be. The change went along with the end of the basic student grant: instead of money, students got a little bit of influence.

Can consultative committees get any better? Sure, the minister admits, but she’s discussed the results of the Berenschot report with all umbrella organisations in higher education, and she’s convinced they will take them on board. Van Engelshoven will also be meeting with student organisations.

At the beginning of the year, the minister gave extra funding for staff-student consultative bodies. After all, there are plans to revise quality control (“accreditation”) in higher education: universities would like to keep the certification of their degree programmes in their own hands. To do so, internal oversight has to be geared to that purpose. According to Van Engelshoven, that means strong staff-student representation is needed.

But further strengthening this type of committees isn’t necessary, the minister believes. She doesn’t see much in legally-mandated training budgets, nor is she advocating for additional powers. What about the fact that sometimes too few people run for that position or that the turnout for elections remains low? The minister has little to say on these matters.

Not enough time
The Berenschot report (in Dutch), which is based on numerous interviews and hundreds of surveys of consultative representatives, does actually reveal that things usually go well. But not always. One example: nearly thirty percent of committee members say that they don’t have enough time to read through proposals. Another example: more than one in ten members thinks the quality of the deliberations with administrators is below par.

Sometimes committees have to argue with their university’s board about the interpretation of the law: which issues are members entitled to voice views about and which issues fall outside their remit? Matters of form take up so much time that they don’t get to discuss the content. “This is usually seen as an indication of more difficult relations between consultative bodies and administrators”, Berenschot notes.

But in some cases, representatives have to put their own house in order. Only a slim majority is properly informed about their legal duties and powers. “It’s noticeable that this percentage is relatively low”, the authors comment.

It would probably help if that information was more easily accessible for everyone. Other tips offered by Berenschot: provide proper training and good administrative support; set up a clear calendar for the whole year; consider appointing an independent chairperson; maintain contact with support groups.

But will such improvements eradicate all difficulties? Administrators also sometimes get irritated with the staff and student representatives. The programme committees in particular come in for a lot of criticism. Faculty administrators sometimes speak of “out-of-control democratisation” and “formalised gabfests”.

Administrators also occasionally doubt student motivation: are they only participating in such a committee for a line on their CV? And whose voice do they actually represent? Usually its the “better students” who sit on the consultative committees, and they are often “harder” on students who aren’t doing as well.

You might think that the coronavirus crisis has had a big impact on staff and student consultations, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Members could of course only meet online, but that also had its advantages: members attended meetings more often. “It is more difficult to speak to each other informally, which increases the distance and makes the relationship more formal”, Berenschot suggests. But this didn’t cause any major problems.