In a report on the freedom of the press in higher education, the ISO writes that the media published by universities are crucial to a mature culture of participation and management.
After all, such university magazines may highlight facts and stories that a university’s executive board ‘would rather have swept under the rug’. Joint management means ‘there must be some room for reservations concerning the school’s course of action and performance’. This is all the more important now that universities’ participation bodies have a say in the allocation of the millions of euros made available to universities after the introduction of student loans.
A non-exhaustive assessment carried out by ISO shows that all fourteen taxpayer-funded Dutch universities have their own magazine or news website. It is less customary for universities of applied sciences, or hogescholen (particularly the smaller ones), to have their own magazines or websites; ISO only counted eight (out of 36).
Moreover, ISO found that some of the editorial teams were ‘clearly tangled up with’ their university’s Communications department, which, in ISO’s opinion, may compromise their independence. Although many magazines have an editorial charter and an editorial board, the members of this board are generally appointed by a university’s executive board, which ‘may lead people to believe that the editorial board serves as the executive board’s watchdog’.
ISO President Tom van den Brink calls on the Minister to have further research conducted on the position of the press in tertiary education. He wants official regulations to stipulate that universities must facilitate the publication of magazines. The Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, recently stated that freedom of the press in higher education is ‘very important’ to her, but that she is unable to impose sanctions in cases where there is no such free press.
Ries Agterberg, the editor-in-chief of Utrecht University’s Digital Magazine (DUB), who also serves as Chair to the Association of Editors-in-Chief of Media in Higher Education, is happy with ISO’s findings. “It is vital that students and staff are properly informed, particularly now that participation bodies have a say in the allocation of funds.” However, he is not sure how the Minister for Education could enforce the existence of such magazines. “If there is no culture of transparency at a university, it is hard to force it to have an independent magazine.”
For instance, many editors currently face the problem of meetings of participation bodies increasingly being declared confidential, so that people cannot report on them. “It would be good if there were greater clarity on this,” says Agterberg.
Erasmus Magazine’s independence is safeguarded by virtue of its editorial charter. Unlike some media published at other higher education institutions, EM does not come under the university’s Communications department, but rather under the General Management Directorate. The members of our editorial board are appointed by the Executive Board, on the recommendation of the editor-in-chief.
“It would be good if the independent media in higher education were granted the same guarantee that their freedom will be upheld as the participation bodies,” says Wieneke Gunneweg, EM’s editor-in-chief, in response to ISO’s proposal. “But even if we were given such a guarantee, we’d still have to see how an Executive Board actually dealt with this guarantee. Here in Rotterdam, we have so far had Executive Boards that respect our independence.”