Over the past few years, the relative turnout in Rotterdam was generally lower than at other universities: usually between 10 and 15 percent at EUR faculties where voters actually had a choice – but often enough, there were so few candidates that they were automatically assigned a seat. To boost turnout, last year the University Council launched a two-year experiment: students no longer stand as candidates for individual faculties but for the entire university. But the plan backfired almost immediately: in May 2019, there were only 8 student candidates for 12 seats, meaning that there was no need to hold elections for the student members. The staff did continue to vote for council candidates on a faculty basis.
Why did things go south last year?
“There weren’t enough candidates during the May elections. That’s why the elections were called off altogether. After we organised a second round in June, we suddenly had 16 candidates for 4 seats. We believe the first round may have been scheduled too early. In March, students don’t exactly know yet what they’ll be doing in September – which makes it difficult for them to commit to a candidacy at that time. On top of this, a lot of people aren’t familiar with the University Council. Council members regularly have to explain what it is they do exactly. My impression is that the faculty councils are slightly better known because they work closer to the students. This is a decentralised university, which makes it hard for us to raise our profile at the central level.”
What does the University Council plan to do about this problem?
“On behalf of the Council, I have brought in an outside firm that will help us improve our name awareness. This firm told us: ‘Before you start communicating, you first need to have a clear idea of your identity.’ Every expression must have a relationship with that identity. So we defined that first. This year, we’ll be focusing on three themes: community building, sustainability and policy. In the context of community building, for example, we will be inviting a speaker who can tell us a bit more about stress. This is a subject that concerns a lot of students. And we plan to publicise all these activities as much as possible via social media and our website. This way we hope to increase our name awareness.”
Last year marked the first time students could vote university-wide rather than exclusively for candidates from their own faculties. This was part of a two-year experiment. Unfortunately, these elections had to be cancelled due to a lack of interest. Will the elections still be organised along the same lines this year?
“This experiment will be entering its second year, so we’ll be sticking to the same format. We have tried to move the registration date forward though. However, the elections will be held during the same period as last year: 18 to 25 May – otherwise it messes up the holidays for the staff members who will be processing the results. We’ll be announcing the elections on 30 March, after which the candidates can register from 3 to 11 May. In contrast with previous years, candidates don’t need to collect signatures beforehand. If there are serious objections to a specific candidacy, people are allowed to lodge an appeal.”
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Over the next few months, the University Council will be organising various events that focus on the themes community building, sustainability and policy, explains Council member Dolly Vellanki, who concerns herself with the council’s PR. “In recent years, we often set up information stalls and gave away goodies, asking people for feedback on our activities. But a lot of them had no idea of what we were actually up to. That’s why we will be organising a lot more activities that highlight what we do as a Council. We will also be inviting specific groups, such as members of the faculty councils and programme committees: students who have already shown an above-average interest in participation. And we’ll also be training potential candidates how to organise their campaign – because a lot of students find this prospect very daunting. They often find it very ‘American’ to talk about yourself that way; they’re not used to that kind of thing.” The substantive workshops haven’t all been planned yet, but Vellanki expects the programme will include events about personal leadership, greenwashing and mindfulness.
What happens if someone appeals against a specific candidate?
“In that case, the Central Electoral Commission will refer to the university council regulations to determine whether the candidature needs to be withdrawn. The establishment of an appeals procedure was a precondition for cancelling the signature requirement.”
On which grounds could this commission establish that an objection is well-founded? What are legitimate reasons for rejecting someone’s candidacy?
“These regulations still need to be drawn up – which is something of a problem. We believed our first priority was to clear the obstacle of students having to collect signatures before registering as a candidate. This tended to be very time-consuming, and the signatures furthermore had to be checked by the electoral commission. Nevertheless, the university insisted that we needed to keep some sort of fail-safe mechanism in place that could be used to stave off unsuitable candidates – which became this appeals procedure.”
In previous years, even finding out who the candidates were was difficult enough: voters had to track down a scanned PDF on the university’s intranet. Will this be improved too?
“Certainly. We’ll be organising a Campaigning workshop for the candidates. And from 12 May on, we’ll be presenting them one by one via our social media channels. Nowadays, we can also make changes to the page dealing with the Council on the university website – until recently, this wasn’t an option. This page will feature blogs by Council members, as well as ‘one-pagers’: documents that explain specific Council subjects in the space of a single page.
How will you be measuring whether all your efforts have paid off?
“To start, we can check whether the number of visitors to our web page and social media channels has increased of course. But the key indicators will be the number of people who register as a Council candidate and the turnout during the elections.
Upcoming University Council events:
31 March – Announcement of elections
6 April – ‘Personal Leadership’ workshop
14 April – Council meeting at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague
30 April and 7 May – Campaigning trainings
18-25 May – Elections
29 May – Election party