The elections to the representative bodies of higher education institutions have become more important now that these councils get to help decide how the millions of euros awarded to universities and universities to allow them to improve their degree programmes are to be spent. Which makes it all the more remarkable that voter turnout has been very low in recent years, particularly at universities of applied sciences.
Only 7 per cent of students attending universities of applied sciences could be bothered to vote last year. The Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, called on the universities of applied sciences to change that – among other things, by raising the profile of their representative bodies. At regular universities, average student voter turnout was 28 per cent in 2018, but that, too, was lower than the 2017 turnout.
A study conducted by the National Student Union (LSVb) in 2017 found that students are more likely to vote if they feel involved in their universities’ representative bodies. If there is a lack of communication or a lack of awareness of the representative bodies’ existence and/or activities, students are less likely to vote.
Also in 2017, associations of representative bodies at universities (LOF) and universities of applied sciences (SOM) investigated how easy it was to find the councils on line. It turned out that only one in three of the representative bodies had their own pages on their universities’ websites, and that only half of these pages actually listed the representative bodies’ contact details.
Finding information on line
Now that two more years have passed, how easy is it to find information on representative bodies on line? We checked this on the websites of all Dutch universities, as well as the websites of the twelve largest universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands. When we performed a basic search on the universities’ websites (using search queries such as ‘representative body’ or ‘university council’), we found that the majority of websites show that there is a university-wide representative body. On the great majority of university websites, we were able to access a lot more information just by clicking a few links: meeting dates and minutes, as well as photos and email addresses of the members of the representative bodies, and sometimes even their phone numbers.
For instance, it is easy to find EUR’s University Council on the university’s website. The Council’s page provides the councillors’ names and photos, as well as their contact details and the Council’s statutes and news releases. However, the information on the Council’s activities and results is not quite up to date; both of the two available pages are about events that took place in the 2017-2018 academic year. Minutes of the meetings are very hard to find, too. They are on line, but on a different website that is hard to find: eur.my-meeting.nl.
The situation is quite different at universities of applied sciences. Over half the websites we checked only provide a few general contact details for their representative bodies. If you wish to learn more about their members, how to reach them, when the meetings are held and what is being discussed at the meetings, you are out of luck.
For instance, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences’ general website hardly provides any information on the school’s representative body. Journalism lecturer Ernst-Jan Hamel was so annoyed by this that he wrote a column for the Trajectum website about his lengthy search for minutes of the meetings. He drew the following conclusion: “It’s almost as if the school’s representative body doesn’t want to be found.”
“I was surprised by that column,” Annette Wind, the chairwoman of Utrecht University of Applied Sciences’ representative body, said in response. “If he’d made one phone call to me, or sent me one email, I could have given him all the information he needed.” She says that staff and students will not have any difficulty finding information on the school’s representative body. According to her, there is a wealth of information available on the intranet. However, access is restricted, and you need log-in codes to access it.
When we polled other universities of applied sciences, we found that this was true for many of them. The representative bodies keep their electorates updated through the intranet, says Mathieu Heemelaar, the chairman of The Hague University of Applied Sciences’ representative body. “You will find an avalanche’s worth of information for staff and students there.” In addition, the school’s representative body now communicates in English (as of this academic year), and two additional persons have been hired to help the representative bodies and programme committees become more professional and write newsletters for their electorates.
Does the fact that this information is only available to staff and students and not to outsiders constitute a problem? Not really, said many universities of applied sciences when we put this question to them. After all, representative bodies exist to serve them. The schools’ greatest priority is ensuring that they can find the relevant information.
Our survey also showed that some universities of applied sciences are having a hard time deciding what to publish on the Internet, and what not to publicise. After all, should minutes providing sensitive information be able to be accessed by just about anyone? Cor Niks, the chairman of Windesheim University of Applied Sciences’ representative body, provided an example of something that should probably not be publicised: the discussion that was had a little while ago about whether the school should abolish the ‘binding study recommendation’ (the decision as to whether a student is allowed to continue his/her degree at the end of Year 1). “If minutes on that subject should ever be publicised, all sorts of things could happen.”
The new General Data Protection Regulation has also made universities of applied sciences more reluctant to publicise information. “We wish to be more transparent to outsiders about our school on the Internet, but we are still discussing the best way to do so,” says Annette Wind of Utrecht University of Applied Sciences. Meanwhile, the school is seeking to raise the profile of its representative body by literally making it more visible. “Not too long ago, the representative body showed up in the building to ask staff and students what mattered to them.”