Participation councils

Minister of Education 'concerned' about low turnout in council elections

Robbert Dijkgraaf met mbo-studenten
The minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. Photo published by the minister's Twitter profile.

Where is all the money going and what does the university want to achieve? Will universities offer quiet rooms and free menstruation products? How does the university help students with problems? 

At all universities in the Netherlands, students and staff have a say in matters like these. They can do so by participating in councils and committees, whose members are elected from time to time. Well, that's if enough people are willing to run for a seat. But, even if that happens, not many people are voting in those elections, either. Turnout is usually under 10 percent and has been consistently declining.

With the motto "Vote for better education", Minister Dijkgraaf is calling on staff and students (especially the latter) to cast their vote. He is being supported by councils at the national level, student organisations ISO and LSVb, and umbrella organisations representing higher education institutions.

Why do you think the turnout is so low?
“Let me start by saying that the low turnout for participation council elections is a major cause for concern to me. In order for higher education institutions to function well, effective participation councils are crucial. That's why the turnout needs to be as high as possible and a significant number of students and staff need to run for a seat.”

Even so, the turnout could be higher.
Research (link in Dutch, Ed.) shows that people are not sufficiently aware of what participation councils do, students in particular.”

Dijkgraaf makes a couple suggestions on how we could change that. He feels that elections should help bring more attention to student and staff participation within the educational institution. In addition, the work of the participation council needs to be clearly visible, which means that members have to keep the people they represent informed. Lastly, he believes it would help if institutions would start recruiting potential candidates in good time.

“We need to stress the message even more that, as a student or staff member, you can actively influence your institution’s policy”, Dijkgraaf states. “That’s why we are calling on people today to go vote.”

As a minister, what are you doing to bolster participation in the decision-making process?
“I have allocated an additional 11.5 million euros for training, support, communication and remuneration as adequate support is crucial if councils are to work effectively. This also makes working for the council more attractive.”

But some universities provide more support than others.
“The law is clear about the council's right to get support but how this is implemented does indeed vary greatly from one institution to another. The question is what they mean by training, support and communication. I’m currently working with other parties to make these definitions. But training members is going well. Last year, I attended a training weekend for council members of universities of applied sciences which I found really inspiring.”

National guidelines have been announced for the remuneration of participation council members. How’s that going?
“We’re still working on it. I hope to be able to provide information to the Parliament in the near future.”

Should students and staff be given the opportunity to provide more input?
“I think the council already has a lot of say. This underscores the importance of a strong council for the quality of the education. Fortunately, that is generally the case.”

Why do you think that?
“The system of participation council rights and obligations in higher education is very robust. In the participation monitor, 80 percent of the respondents say that the directors and managers usually or always adopt an open and constructive stance. In addition, 82 percent say they usually or always stick to the agreements reached.”

Your call to vote is mainly directed at students. Why should they take part in participation activities?
“It can be of particular benefit to students as it affects the quality of their study programme and the network they build, not to mention they get management experience and organisational knowhow.”

Your party, D66, is known as the party of democratisation. Does that make student and staff participation even more important to you?
"The effectiveness of participation councils is a matter of importance to any minister of education, regardless of their party.”