A call to the university and universities of applied sciences

Utrecht student council members want to strengthen participation

Megafoon. Foto: Pixabay
Photo: Pixabay

The councils of Utrecht University (UU), Utrecht University of Applied Sciences (HU), Utrecht University of the Arts (HKU) and Marnix Academy want “better guidance, accessibility and brand awareness” to contribute to “an inclusive, democratic and well-represented student community”. Their manifesto, addressed to their institutions' administrators, makes several recommendations to improve student participation.

Student union Vidius was closely involved with the manifesto. The National Consultation Groups, HBO councils, and MBO student council SR030 also signed it.

Lack of enthusiasm
For years, student councils and national student organisations have been asking for more attention to be paid to co-participation bodies. Animo is low: it is difficult to find candidates for these councils and few students vote.

Although there were enough candidates in the past elections and the turnout was slightly higher this year than last year, it can be said that these problems also exist at UU. Two years ago, student members came up with a plan to give council participation a boost. They asked for higher compensation and better guidance, for example. The Executive Board then promised to appoint a coordinator for this purpose. Last summer, the student members of the University Council started receiving significantly higher wages.

Councils are actually "well organised" at UU, says Julia Waterval, chair of the student section of the University Council, who signed the manifesto on behalf of the University Council.

However, the student members of the University Council also encounter issues that make it difficult for them to carry out their work properly. According to Waterval, sometimes people forget to share documents with the council or share them too late. 

“That sucks,” says Waterval. “If documents arrive late, we have to make a hasty decision." In addition, some documents contain a lot of jargon or are "very technical", making it "hard" for student members to understand.

Moreover, awareness of the University Council remains an issue. “Ultimately, students don't know who we are and what we do. As a council, we want to represent the students, but they must know where to find us.”

Democracy in education
These are points that appear to be relevant to more councils in Utrecht. In the manifesto, the student councils expressed their concerns about decision-making. They aim to use the manifesto to improve the democratic process at the university. Various co-participation bodies experience “a lack of involvement in important decisions as well as a lack of transparency in the preparation of decisions and documents”.

The student members write that it is essential that councils are involved in decision-making in a timely and sufficient manner. The student members want all the information they need to do their work properly.

The manifesto makes several recommendations that would help councils do their work properly. For example, they want more budget for training and permanent guidance from a designated coordinator.

The University Council already has a participation coordinator, but, according to Waterval, he started in February but took a leave in April. No replacement has been arranged so far. “The University of Applied Sciences has a whole team that supports the council. We would like to have that too.” UU's coordinator has since returned to work.

The manifesto also states that the compensation for council members must follow the recently introduced national guidelines, which state that students in co-participation councils should receive between 500 and 1,200 euros monthly.

The Executive Board increased the compensation for student members to 709 euros a month last year, so this is no longer an issue for the University Council, according to Waterval. The University Council members still want to stand up for students in other councils in the city, who receive “meager compensation and no training budget”.

More accessible
In addition, the student councils want policy documents to be more understandable and translated into English. The Utrecht University Council is already bilingual, with policy documents presented in both Dutch and English and an interpreter present in the meetings to translate the discussions for international members.

Nevertheless, according to Waterval, English-speaking council members still face obstacles. International students Matias Edelstein and Teresa Pappalardo wrote in an op-ed on DUB that a significant part of their work is still in Dutch, which prevents them from participating properly.

In addition, the student councils state in the manifesto that educational institutions should raise more awareness of the elections by sending official voting passes and letters to students. This would "emphasise the importance of the democratic process," they argue. Finally, they propose to promote cooperation between educational institutions in the city.

The plan is for the next student section of the University Council to submit the manifesto's points in a memo to the Executive Board. This should happen in the academic year 2024-2025.