Profielen, the news site published by Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences (RUAS), reported last Thursday that the votes cast by RUAS’ central representative advisory council are sealed to the public. Some of its discussions are had, and all of its voting is done, after the council has asked the university’s Executive Board, the audience and the media to leave the room. The president of the representative body will then announce the result of the vote after the break. According to Profielen, members of the representative body hardly ever use the opportunity to offer an explanation of their vote.
According to the article, the chairman of the university’s representative advisory council, Sjoerd van Vliet, feels that everybody should be able to say whatever they feel like saying during the council’s meetings. “But you can tell that we haven’t quite got there yet in this organisation.” He confirmed that the confidentiality of the vote gives people a sense of security, thus enabling everyone to give their opinions freely. He agreed that secret votes shouldn’t be necessary, but stated that many representatives actually seem to want them.
“Staff on the council may find it hard to stand up to their managers publicly, and student representatives, too, sometimes fear the consequences of their vote,” says Van Vliet. He also says that secret votes have been held in Rotterdam “for years”.
This seems inconsistent with the Dutch Higher Education and Research Act, which stipulates that representative bodies must have meetings and voting sessions that are open to the public, says Peter Kwikkers, an expert on both education and legal affairs. “Doors must only be closed if a particular person is being discussed, or if an education institution’s interests could be jeopardised so significantly that disclosure at a later stage is acceptable.” Kwikkers finds it ‘extremely strange’ that RUAS’ central representative advisory council does not adhere to this rule.
Paul van Meenen, an MP representing D66, feels the same way. “Quite aside from the reason, this is highly undesirable. We’re talking about major decisions – remember, a representative body has the right to approve or veto the budget in broad strokes. Representative bodies are enormously important in that they act as a force capable of opposing the executive board, but they only work when their meetings can be attended by the public.”
‘Representative bodies are enormously important in that they act as a force capable of opposing the executive board, but they only work properly when their meetings can be attended by the public.’
His fellow MPs agree: “Representative bodies exist to represent you, so if you vote for a particular person, you have the right to be told what this person is doing on your behalf,” says Frank Futselaar, an MP representing SP.
Harry van der Molen, an MP representing CDA, who used to be a representative on a university of applied sciences’ representative body himself, calls the closed-doors trend ‘worrisome’. “Representatives are elected, that’s the great thing about them. But it also means they’re accountable. At the very least, people should know how they voted.”
Far from exceptional
However, what looks self-evident on paper turns out to be a different story for quite a few universities of applied sciences. Because judging from a quick survey, RUAS’ representative body is far from exceptional in voting behind closed doors. We contacted nine central representative bodies of nine major universities of applied sciences. Five out of nine told us their votes are generally sealed to the public.
The main reason we were given was that representative bodies typically wish to be uniform in the decision with which they present the university’s executive board. This was confirmed by Arie Rinzema, a member of the Association of Representative Bodies at Universities of Applied Sciences. He used to deal with decisions exactly the same way when he served as the chairman of Fontys University of Applied Sciences’ central representative council. “The council arrives at a decision together. That’s what it’s all about. It is not important how many ayes and noes there were. The Executive Board doesn’t need to know those numbers. In addition, I feel that councillors must defend the decision that was made, even if they don’t actually agree with it.”
Hans Uijterwijk, who is on the board of the Association of University of Applied Sciences Supervisors, does not believe that closed meetings are objectionable per se, either. According to Uijterwijk, a former president of Breda University of Applied Sciences’ executive board, it is completely normal for representative bodies to vote behind closed doors. “In an ideal world, councillors would feel free to speak their minds, but even so, if you’re the secretary to the executive board and you’re also a member of the council, you probably won’t like the thought of voting against whatever the executive board proposed,” says Uijterwijk.
This is completely human, he says, even if people have an excellent relationship with their superiors. He even suspects that some people only join representative bodies on the condition that their votes are sealed. “And it’s quite hard enough as it is to find enough representatives.”
Uijterwijk does distinguish between councils with individual representatives and councils whose members represent political parties. He feels that those councillors who represent a political party must be transparent about their votes, because they were elected to represent a particular manifesto. This is less true for individual representatives. “They are mainly elected for their personal qualities or for their reputation within the university.”
Long, hard talk
Martin Memelink, who is on the board of Student Overleg Medezeggenschap (the organisation for student members of representative bodies), a sister organisation to LSVb, was initially surprised to hear of the closed meetings, but said he understood the rationale for them, too. “When a member of the executive board is attending your meeting, you’re definitely going to have a different type of conversation.” He does wonder where the councils’ need for security is coming from. “If meetings are closed to increase the councillors’ sense of security, there would seem to be an underlying problem that will not be solved merely by keeping the council’s meetings closed.”
SOM will not undertake any action for the time being, but Memelink does advise councils to check the by-laws of their university. They should stipulate that councillors are free to vote as they like and that they should not suffer any consequences as a result of their votes.
Politicians hold even stronger opinions on the subject. “A sense of insecurity is not solved by being secretive. It is solved by being completely transparent about the work you do,” says D66 representative Van Meenen. Representative advisory council reps who feel unsafe when speaking their minds are invited to contact him.
CDA representative Van der Molen calls on representative bodies to have “a long, hard talk”. “This is unacceptable. You are in a position of considerable responsibility, and you can’t take up your responsibilities if you are afraid to express your opinion.” He feels councillors should have the courage to show which plans they do and don’t support. He also feels that executive boards should take up their responsibilities: “Transparency can only be achieved if everyone is free to say what he wants to say. It is up to the schools to establish the spirit of openness that allows people to do so.”