It’s 25 October 2016, around 5 p.m., on the ground floor of the Bayle Building. The twelve student members of the new University Council feel confident. They’ve just finished the second meeting of the academic year, and it’s the second get-together attended by all the student members. They’ve already agreed on their first plans for the remainder of the year. Just over a month later, however, clouds appear on the horizon. Three students fail to show up at the next meeting – without giving notice. And this isn’t the last time.
Because from then on, the three actually never attend another meeting – despite repeated requests sent by the Presidium (the Council’s executive body) and their fellow student members. And the University can also kiss goodbye to the reimbursements paid out to every University Council member in the 2016/2017 academic year – totalling nearly 4,000 euro. This becomes clear from various documents and EM’s interviews with some of the people involved. Two of the three absentee members come from the same, large faculty – meaning that thousands of EUR students were deprived of representation in the University Council for the better part of the academic year.
Short on people
On behalf of the University Council’s student members, Aleid Barmentlo (the Chair of the present U-Council) and Wies Bontje (the Chair of last year’s student contingent) tried to resolve the issue of the phantom council members. As members of the then Presidium, they can express the common feeling within the Council’s student contingent: “When you have too few active student members, you simply don’t have enough hands on deck. We’re never short on ideas; we’re always short on people. You get a lot less work done with nine or ten people than you would with twelve.”
Bontje agrees with Barmentlo’s assessment: “I think we have a strong core group, who has put in a lot of work. I believe you’ve definitely achieved something as a University Council when the Rector promotes your Students4Students project during the opening of the academic year. But of course, you’ll always have people who don’t really rise to the occasion. Which is a shame – because of course you want everyone to commit themselves 100%. As the Chair, you don’t want to be taking people to task all the time. We tried to get them on board again, but no such luck.”
The fact that the council members didn’t act like schoolmarms doesn’t mean they didn’t try to remind the ‘phantom members’ of their obligations. But they never received a serious response – at which point the Presidium had no more options left. “Council members are democratically elected, which means that they are personally responsible for representing their voters. When council members fail to fulfil their duties, the only thing we can do is remind them of this responsibility. Which we did on a number of occasions last year,” says Barmentlo. “The Presidium has tried to hold the non-active members to account. As students, it didn’t take us long before we concluded: ‘Let’s not waste any more energy on this’. Because look: these people have been voted in, so there’s nothing you can do about the fact that they occupy a seat on the Council.”
Kees van Paridon, who chaired the University Council the previous academic year, confirms that the Council regularly attempted to contact the absentee members. “I know that the student contingent tried to invite them and get them involved in their work. To no avail. This subject was discussed a number of times in the Presidium. The talks focused both on the members’ absence and the Council’s attempts to get them involved, and which consequences their non-attendance may have for their reimbursements. The latter issue proved far from straightforward.”
Last year, each student member was reimbursed for his or her Council work to the amount of EUR 3735.55. A share of this money is a fixed grant for student board members. This grant is paid out by the Profileringsfonds. The other share is a fee paid to council members when they attend a meeting (see boxout).
For an outsider, the solution seems pretty simple: if you don’t show up, you don’t get paid. But as the Presidium found out, this is easier said than done. Bontje: “You can’t recover this money once it has been awarded by the Profileringsfonds. When someone has been elected to a position, you aren’t allowed to revoke the administrator grant.” But at least – so thought Bontje and the other Presidium members – they could always dock attendance fees.
The reimbursement for student members of the University Council is made up of two components. First of all, the grant awarded by the Profileringsfonds, which amounts to a monthly payment of EUR 288.95 for nine consecutive months (six months in this academic year). In the current situation, each student who is a member of the Council is entitled to this reimbursement, regardless of his or her contribution. The second component is made up of attendance fees, also known as the aanwezigheidspremie (‘presence premium’), to the amount of EUR 113.50 per month. According to regulations, students only receive this reimbursement if they actually attend the council meetings.
Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) uses its Profileringsfonds to award grants to full-time bachelor and master students who make a substantial contribution to student life, the University or society.
‘I know that the student contingent tried to invite them and get them involved in their work’
In theory, this was easy, since the minutes record precisely who had attended which meeting. But it proved a bit more challenging in practice. “Once again, we didn’t manage to pull it off,” says Barmentlo. “Wies and I really pushed for this. But the formal procedure for this is very complicated and takes up so much time that the payment has already been transferred before you’ve finished all the paperwork – at which point you’re too late. What’s more, you can’t simply say ‘Someone hasn’t showed up – he or she doesn’t get paid’. Because the attendance lists weren’t always up to scratch either.”
On top of the rather unreliable attendance records, the Presidium faced a bigger problem: EUR’s accounting system actually precludes the docking of attendance fees. “There’s no room for intervening in the payment arrangements for attendance fees – even though regulations stipulate that we should have this option.”
In practice, the members of the Presidium were forced to take a very circuitous route last year. “The payments are lined up in a payment schedule a week beforehand. Before you dock someone’s attendance fee, you are required to communicate this decision to the person in question. And then they still have a response term, during which they can present their reasons for not attending. So even if you’re in the right, the actual process takes so long that the money has been paid out before you’ve got anywhere.”
Ultimately, this red tape proved more than the Presidium could handle. “We got bogged down in bureaucratic processes. The system doesn’t take into account that some people don’t do their job. We were unable to dock or retrieve their payments, which is very frustrating.” As the current Council Chair, Barmentlo is determined to change the rules and ensure that they are enforced. “The attendance lists are included on the Presidium’s agenda this year. It immediately becomes clear when someone has crossed the line again. You’re allowed to miss one or two meetings, but after that you don’t have to expect an attendance fee anymore.”
Despite repeated requests, the three absentee council members refused to offer a substantive response to the questions that our research for this article gave rise to.
In its response, EUR’s Executive Board informs us that it was unaware of this issue with phantom council members and the aforementioned administrative obstacles. “The Executive Board has not received any specific signals regarding the performance of council members last year. In our experience, the composition of the University Council changes from one year to the next, and the amount of time and energy that individual members invest in their Council work can vary considerably. If there are indeed issues with the payment system for attendance fees, we will work to resolve them together with the U-Council. In conclusion, the Executive Board is pleased with the measures taken by the U-Council and is happy to continue discussing these matters with the Council members.”
Over the next two years, Barmentlo is determined to make work of this issue. Together with the other members of the Council, she has adopted a whole range of measures that are intended to prevent this situation from cropping up again. The Council will keep a strict record of members’ attendance or absence, the Presidium will meet more often, there will be shorter lines of communication with the Executive Board and the Council will step up its efforts to strengthen participation in general within the University. Bontje wholeheartedly supports these new goals: “Because the biggest threat posed by this whole affair is that when people aren’t effectively represented, they don’t think: ‘Hey, I should join in too’. While when you have some nice results to show, people start thinking: ‘Hey… I should look into that’.”
We’ll soon be publishing part 2 of our series about Participation at EUR. In that article, the members of the University Council talk about the measures that they’ll be taking to deal with phantom Council members and how they plan to shape the new participation structure.