Students and teaching staff are allowed to have a say, or at least share their thinking, in many issues, including how money is spent, whether quiet zones are needed and what the library’s opening hours are.
This takes place in a variety of different councils and committees, at study programme level, faculty level as well as at the central level for the institution as a whole. Elections are held yearly for each of these bodies. But how many people actually cast their vote? Turnout in elections has been dwindling for several years.
A single week
The matter was raised during a debate in the House of Representatives last Monday, with MP Jeanet van der Laan (D66) expressing the view that it should be possible to do better. She suggested that all elections to participation bodies be scheduled to take place in a single week, to give students at all institutions “a greater sense of how democracy works at their place of study”.
Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf considers this an interesting thought. “This year, I also launched a mini-campaign of sorts,” he replies. He did so at the start of a period marked by multiple electoral contests, together with students, umbrella associations and participation councils. “That attracted considerable media attention, whetting the appetite for more.”
Student organisations also think it is a good idea, according to D66. This view is confirmed by Elisa Weehuizen, the new chair of the Dutch Student Union (LSVb). A nationwide election week could ensure higher voter turnout. “The elections are more easily overlooked when they are spread out across the year.”
But, she adds, that does not solve the problems the participation bodies have to deal with. Participation bodies should be better informed, including about their exact tasks, for example. “Programme committees are sometimes called on to evaluate subjects, when that is not their role. That leaves them little time for other things.”
The reimbursement paid to members of participation bodies also remains paltry. Students are simply deterred by receiving a small fee, despite putting in a lot of their time,” says Weehuizen.
Rien Wijnhoven of LOVUM, the association of university participation bodies, foresees that a single national election week will also run into practical problems. “It does not sound odd, and we have talked about this before, but in some cities the elections are held in December, for example, and elsewhere in April or June. That leads to problems in terms of planning and terms of office.”
Furthermore, scheduling elections in a single week will solve little if nothing else changes, he predicts. Dijkgraaf’s mini-campaign, for instance, did not lead to higher voter turnout, despite all the media coverage it generated. “In some places turnout has halved, while elsewhere it may have increased by a few percent.”
He believes the councils and committees need to increase their visibility. “That really is a glaring oversight. What is on the agendas, how are the interests of students and lecturers affected? What is the outcome? These are things we need to show and explain. Even students and staff who are part of a trade union, for example, sometimes hardly know what participation bodies are officially able and allowed to do.”
According to him, the deeper problem is that the institutions’ participation bodies receive little support. Also, candidates are typically unable to draw on expertise within the institution. “The elections are usually not even highlighted on the website”, says Wijnhoven “You have to click through several times before you can find any information about them. It would be good if they had some assistance from the marketing and communications department, for example.”
There are more plans to rescue the participation bodies from the doldrums. Last year, the House of Representatives backed national guidelines for the reimbursement of members of participation bodies. The House is also in favour of guidelines for training, support and communication.
As yet, little has been heard in that regard, however. Dijkgraaf promises to inform the House of Representatives about the state of affairs soon.