Dahran Çoban (ISO / Dutch National Student Association) and Lyle Muns (LSVb/Dutch Student Union) say goodbye. They say that they no longer carry a press telephone around with them. These have been passed on to their successors.
“It feels as if something has been amputated”, says Çoban, but not for Muns: “To me, it feels like an oasis of calm. I can sleep in now; nobody is calling me out of bed.” Çoban is surprised: “Oh, I haven’t managed to sleep in yet. I still wake up at half past six.”
The two student leaders took office when the first lockdown hit higher education. All lessons suddenly had to be taught via a laptop. In-person education was completely out of the question and suddenly their year on the board was looking pretty different from what they had expected. No trips around student cities; almost everything had to be done from behind a screen.
Muns: “It was a totally different year than what we had hoped for, and it was also really complicated. We saw how much impact the crisis had on the well-being of students. We had to plead for more space. On the other hand, we simply couldn’t say: ‘Let’s leave these measures in place.’
Çoban: “We sometimes had to juggle things about a bit: What do students want, and what is good for society as a whole? Students did their very best. The media sometimes said that they were the ones who caused the second wave, while I mainly saw students put their whole house into quarantine or draw up strict house rules. Sometimes students weren’t allowed to enter their own homes because they had left the bubble at Christmas to visit their parents.”
And students were not given much consideration at first. Roommates were not even allowed to sit together on a grass field because they were not officially a ‘household’. It led to all kinds of (unjustified) fines and recriminations.
Also watch this broadcast of EM TV in which Lyle Muns is a guest.
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Muns: “I sometimes felt a lack of understanding. Students are in a vulnerable stage of their lives and they have had to make very substantial sacrifices. You’ve just started living in a new city and should be getting to know all sorts of people, but now you have to limit your contacts – and not because you are in so much danger yourself. If a couple of students forgot the one-and-a-half-metre rule, as has happened to everyone on occasion, it was as if all students wanted to massacre the elderly.”
Çoban: “When it came to easing restrictions, students were really at the back of the queue. I was often phoned: ‘Why are they forgetting about us?’ Since most students managed to earn their study credits, it didn’t seem like a big problem to politicians. They were also very casual about online education. ‘We are also working online,’ they said. But students don’t get paid and they usually have much smaller spaces.”
Consequently, students rose up in protest. Muns sees the protest on the Museumplein (‘I want to go to school!’) as one of his personal highlights. The students made the news and student welfare was finally back on the agenda.
Muns: “We were really in doubt: Should we take to the streets for that? But I’m glad we did.” Çoban: “We also followed up on it by having research carried out which showed that students were really struggling. So we no longer had to argue that point at every meeting.”
And the ISO – which in principle would rather talk than demonstrate – also took to the streets. Together with student organisation LAKS, the ISO and a small group of young people all stood on the square in The Hague in February. The demonstration was a little underwhelming because on that day, the Dutch government announced an 8.5-billion-euro support package.
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They did notice that the Ministry of Education had some sympathy for students, but it had not yet fully dawned on the rest of the cabinet. The Outbreak Management Team (OMT) was decisive for policy and it primarily looked at the crisis from a virological point of view, particularly in the beginning.
But ultimately, the student organisations managed to achieve more than they had expected. Next year, tuition fees for all students will be cut in half. There is always room for improvement, but they were able to fight for this. Students sometimes assume that their opinion doesn’t matter, but according to Çoban and Muns, they can make a difference.
In fact, the elections should have been the biggest topic of their administrative year. And yes, they have been busy with that too, they say. The ISO set up a kind of electoral advice website featuring the positions of parties on all kinds of subjects which forced politicians to adopt better standpoints. Just take the much-hated binding study advice, for instance. “That gained a lot of attention”, says Çoban. “We set something in motion.” The hope is that the standard – a source of stress for first-year students, according to the ISO – will become less stringent or even disappear altogether.
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In the aftermath of the elections, the LSVb organised the national student strike with a huge demonstration on the Malieveld to repeal the student loan system. “It was the coolest thing I have ever experienced”, says Muns. “A large protest, with social distancing, without unrest, without water cannons… It was all possible, and otherwise the issue would have disappeared from the public eye long ago.”
The ISO was not present on the Malieveld. The two organisations have slightly different standpoints on the future of study financing. The ISO came up with a proposal of its own this week, based on research by the Nibud (National Institute for Family Finance Information). But they don’t want to quibble about these differences in this interview. In general, they do agree: The system needs to improve. And that is now possible, they say. “For the first time in decades, there is a chance that study funding for students will improve again”, says Muns. “There had been nothing but cutbacks. We also made sure that tuition fees went down for once, if only for one year.”
And that is now possible, they say. “For the first time in decades, there is a chance that study funding for students will improve again”, says Muns. “There had been nothing but cutbacks. We also made sure that tuition fees went down for once, if only for one year.”
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What are they going to do now that they have said their farewells? Muns is going backpacking on his own in South America. “I was constantly working so hard, my head was full of adrenaline, and there was no time for questions like: ‘What is this crisis doing to me, what has a year in the spotlight done to me?’ It is a good idea to reflect on the past year. I need to be alone for a bit to do that.”
As it happens, things were not that bad at the LSVb, he adds. He had previously founded a trade union for sex workers. “If you want to be in the spotlight, then try standing up for sex workers. Compared to that, a student union is peanuts.”
Çoban is all set to start her master’s degree in encyclopaedia and philosophy of law in Leiden next year. She will therefore study under professors Paul Cliteur and Afshin Ellian. “That says nothing about my political preferences”, she emphasises, “but I do find the study direction really interesting.” She thinks that she might already start hitting the books this summer.
A year in the limelight was not always easy for her either, especially since women who speak out receive far more criticism than men. Sometimes it felt threatening and she was glad that nobody knew where she lived. But occasionally the criticism was downright stupid. “Then they would say, for example, that the ISO is so white. At times like these, I knew they hadn’t spent a second looking into me and would forget about me straight away.”