'Participating in the council is bad for your career? That can't be right!'

Members of the University Council talking to members of the Executive Board. Photo: DUB

Co-determination bodies are tasked with discussing virtually all policies with university administrators, faculties and study programmes. In a letter to the House of Representatives, the Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, wrote that “by and large” things are going well with employee participation. Her statement relies on research conducted by consulting firm Berenschot.

Rien Wijnhoven, chair of Lovum, the national association of university participation councils, highly disagrees. He is also the independent chair of the university council in Tilburg. The turnout at elections has been declining for years and is sometimes dramatically low, not to mention that programme committees and faculty councils often have little choice, as they can barely find candidates. Those in office generally have too little time.

What do you think is the problem with employee participation?
“There have been worrying developments in recent years. The politicians are handing an increasing number of tasks to the participation bodies. We have to discuss huge sums of money, monitor quality agreements, oversee staff welfare… The councils are having an increasingly tough time meeting such high expectations.”

Why is it getting harder?
“Researchers' workload has increased considerably, as has the study load for students. They don't get enough remuneration for their time on the participation council and are sometimes discouraged from taking part altogether. Things sometimes go really badly, especially at the faculty and programme level, with councils that do not have enough members, lack of support, and documents arriving too late. The alarm needs to be sounded.”

Would you discourage someone from joining a council?
“Older researchers sometimes say to ambitious young colleagues: 'don’t do it, it’s bad for your career’. After all, young researchers are on temporary contracts, so grumbling is not appreciated. Why would they make waves by joining participation bodies? The workload among professors is equally high, so it's extremely rare for them to take part. The result is an overrepresentation of support staff and employees who are nearing retirement. There is nothing wrong with these employees, of course, but it makes the councils rather one-sided.”

In your view, what needs to happen?
“The work performed by council members ought to be part of a ‘recognition and rewards’ policy. That’s the policy through which the Dutch universities establish how to reward activities other than scientific research, such as teaching and other forms of disseminating knowledge. Employee participation is part of that, too. If all goes well, council members will then get more support and facilities.”

The minister says that things are going well, by and large.
“If things are going well at one university but badly at another, you cannot say that everything is okay on average. What does that actually tell us? The Berenschot report reveals that ‘the majority’ of members takes a certain view, and that majority is 58 percent. The variation says a lot more than ‘the average’ or ‘the majority’. Participation bodies must be properly facilitated everywhere.”

If the council cannot command its own facilities, what can we actually expect?
“We cannot change this unwelcome trend on our own. That’s why we are calling on politicians, the minister and our own administrators.”

Can council members go on strike? Can you say ‘we’re not going to vote on anything until this is settled’?
“It doesn’t make much sense to put a spanner in the works. Ultimately, we all have the same interest at heart: a university that functions well, where people are happy with what they are doing. That is different from regular politics, where people are sometimes diametrically opposed.”

But then how can people know that there is a big problem?
“Everyone can see that things are not heading in the right direction. The turnout at elections is often dramatically low. The councils have so much to do and they already have too little time to do it, let alone to put effort into raising their profile on campus, keep in contact with the people they represent and build a broader orientation, as Berenschot advises.”

Does good employee participation really depend on remuneration?
“It probably doesn’t matter a lot to the people who are doing the job right now, as they knew what they were getting themselves into. But there are interesting groups of employees who are not currently standing for election. That’s a sheer waste for the institution as a whole. We want to avoid having to say in five or ten years’ time, ‘let’s just stop, it no longer means anything’. Surely that can’t be right? If you can’t foster internal debate at a university, where can you do that?”