Parliament worried: is the ombudsperson for inappropriate behaviour really independent?

Photo: Pixabay

Over the past year, four Dutch universities have been experimenting with an ombudsperson in their organisation. The initiative appears to be a success, so universities struck an agreement with unions establishing that all universities across the country would hire an independent ombudsperson dedicated to this topic before the 1st of July.

Still, it is up to the universities themselves to decide on a number of details, such as whether students can also turn to the ombudsperson for support, or the service is restricted to staff only. While it's true that the Dutch Minister of Education, Ingfrid van Engelshoven, called on universities to grant students access to this new employee, the truth they are not obliged to do so.

Too open-ended
Based on the questions submitted in writing to the now outgoing Minister, it looks like several parties find this arrangement too open-ended. Pointing to recent cases of professors' and lecturers' sexual misconduct, the ChristenUnie party said it's afraid that students will be harmed by the vagueness of the agreement. VVD agrees: the party would like to know where students can turn to when they have a complaint to make. The Socialist Party went further: is the minister going to insist that universities appoint a separate ombudsperson for students? Finally, PvdA caught attention to the delicate position of PhD candidates, who are often still seen as students, as is the case at the University of Groningen, for example.

Furthermore, there were many questions about the independent status of the ombudsperson. D66 understands that it's important for ombudsperson to have the support and backing of the university's executive board, but won't their independence be compromised if they have to answer to the board?

GroenLinks also wants to know: “What happens if the board of an educational institution decides not to take any action about a complaint, even though the ombudsperson advises them to do so? We have to avoid that the ombudsperson's office becomes just an addition to a system that is already inadequate”.

The parties asked the minister to include the office of ombudsperson in the Higher Education and Research Act (WHW). Her answers to these and other questions are expected within a few weeks.