Student/staff participation in higher education sector could improve. But how?

Students react to the announcement of the results of the 2019 elections to the UU university council. Photo: DUB's archive.

As members of the participation council, students and staff can participate in decisions relating to the policy of their educational institution. The idea is that people that are involved with education on a daily basis ought to have a say.

Although the Dutch Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, thinks that things “are, in general, going well in terms of participation”, there is quite a lot of room for improvement, according to an evaluation by research agency Berenschot. The minister told the House about it in September, following which she has received questions from severa political parties.

Little interest
One of the concerns manifested by MPs is the lack of interest in participating in the council, on the part of students. That is not a new problem, though: in 2017, a survey by ResearchNed revealed that 67 percent of students have no idea what participation entails. The number of students running for the university council has become smaller and smaller. Consequently, in the view of minister Van Engelshoven, more attention needs to be paid to this issue, in order to get people interested in the role.

But political parties VVD and D66 wants to know how the minister intends to do that. Has she examined the underlying reason for this lack of interest? Is it perhaps because the remuneration for working on the council is inadequate?

The minister has a few weeks to give her answer, but two student organisations have already fired a shot across her bows. Every two years, the Dutch National Students' Association (ISO) conducts a survey into the state of play with regard to participation. Last year, it turned out that the remuneration for student members differs greatly from one institution to another, ranging from 100 to 740 euros per month. Additionally, not all members are paid for the same number of hours.

Making more hours and more money available could encourage more students to get involved, says ISO. “Someone who is involved on a full-time basis is also more visible to fellow-students”, says ISO chair Lisanne de Roos.

Money is indeed an important factor, in the opinion of Benjamin Velge, of the Representation Foundation for Universities of Applied Sciences. He feels that it would be good if the remuneration were standardised across all institutions. But that's not the only solution. “There are also universities of applied sciences where the remuneration is high but the interest is low.”

He thinks that making people enthusiastic works better. “Some universities of applied sciences have opened an Instagram account for the participation council, while at other places a lot less happens”, he says. Lisanne de Roos considers this factor important as well, but still defends that good remuneration is the best place to start. “If you’ve got that organised, the council has the leeway and time to enthuse people.”

Lack of knowledge
Another recurring topic of discussion is the lack of knowledge about the issues at hand among the members of the councils. “Quintessentially, it’s a long-term problem”, says De Roos. How do you read a budget, what are your rights and obligations... These are all things that you have to learn if you join the participation council. “Only at the end of your one or two-year term do you know more or less how it works. During that time you have experienced administrators sitting opposite you”, Velge explains.

The support for the participation council still differs too much from one institution to another, in De Roos’s view. “We want a clear guideline that ensures a proper facilitation of the participation council: about the level of remuneration, about the number of hours and about the necessary training.”

There are concerns in the House of Representatives, too. For instance, who is monitoring whether the participation council is getting adequate support, inquired the green party, GroenLinks, to the minister. In her letter, she put the ball in the institutions’ court for the time being: “I refer education administrators to their role and legal responsibility in supporting the participation council.”

Maybe an outgoing minister cannot be expected to make any major changes, but in view of the many questions from the House, there is no doubt the subject will be raised again as soon as a new government is in place.