This is the quietest they’ve had it for a long time. “I remember I was busy trying to make my final study deadline last year when the news came in that the government had fallen”, says Janssen. “Needless to say, my phone was ringing off the hook right away because we immediately had to get to work: what will this mean for students?”

They had to talk to political parties as quickly as possible: what were they going to put in their election programmes? How could they draw attention to topics relevant to students? “We suddenly boarded a rollercoaster and had to prepare ourselves for an entirely different political year”, says Weehuizen. “That does require some flexibility.”

Amongst other things, they called for internship allowances, flexible studying and student wellbeing. Janssen: “Those points made it into many programmes. But then you see the outline agreement and you couldn’t be more frustrated.”

Fine for slow students

The new government wants to fine slower students. They will have to pay three thousand euros extra in tuition fees if they take longer than one year extra to finish their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree.

Incidentally, they had not seen this coming. Janssen: “It’s exactly the parties that are now forming a coalition that said they attached so much importance to livelihood. And then you introduce a fine that makes life difficult for informal carers or students with a chronic illness, for instance! That doesn’t add up.”

“The fine turned students’ worlds upside down”, Weehuizen confirms. “From unions to social student associations, everyone is very worried.” The battle will cost a lot of time, she expects, and she thinks that’s a pity. “Now we have to focus on defensively fighting against those cutbacks and against the penalty for slow students, which takes a lot of time away from improving education. Our main priority at the moment is to make sure things don’t come crumbling down in the years to come.”

Demonstration

LSVb immediately organised a protest against this fine for slow students, in which all kinds of organisations and unions participated, including administrators of higher education institutions.

But ISO wasn’t there. It illustrates the difference between ISO and LSVb: one prefers to be at the consultation table, the other is activist in nature. “Perhaps we’re not as likely to be on a protest field”, says Janssen, “but we do voice our opinions very loudly nonetheless.” For example, ISO and LSVb joined forces with others to write an urgent letter about that fine for slow students.

Demi Janssen_ISO-HOP
Image credit: Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

Palestine

The difference between the two student organisations is also evident from their stance on the pro-Palestine protests. Weehuizen: “When those anti-genocide protests broke out, the student movement was in an uproar. Personally, I thought it was very cool that students could organise themselves so quickly. We expressed our support because we saw that some institutions didn’t actually want to have a dialogue and didn’t offer any transparency. So how can students create a counterweight? “For us, those protests are a symptom indicating things aren’t right with democracy in education.”

Janssen: “Above all, we thought it was important that students could voice their opinions and could have a dialogue. And we find it worrying that didn’t go well everywhere.” It’s not a good sign if the police are involved or if students feel the need to go on hunger strike, she believes. “Students need to feel heard by their institution, in a safe dialogue.”

Accomplished

What did they accomplish? For one thing, they reached agreement with the higher education institutions on national guidelines on the reimbursement of students on the participation councils.

Janssen: “It’s very important that the board takes account of the opinions of all students and not just the ones that can afford to spend a year on participation. You also need to hear the students who are less well-off.”

Those reimbursements are more than fair, LSVb thinks. “It’s work and that means you have to get paid. As an institution, you actually benefit from students being able to form a counterweight.”

Good advice

Now they’re both going back to studying. Weehuizen studies sociology at Erasmus University Rotterdam and will spend five months of the final year of her Bachelor’s programme in Singapore. Janssen is continuing her liberal arts and sciences Bachelor’s in Maastricht.

Do they have any good advice for their successors? Janssen: “Realise you’re not alone. You have a team of representatives and staff around you, all of whom are very motivated. You also receive support from former student representatives. And do take a breather now and then. You do a lot for students, you have every right to be proud of that.”

Weehuizen: “As a student representative, be courageous! Accessibility of education is under pressure, now more than ever. This demands leadership that voices its opinions clearly and doesn’t flinch in the face of political headwind. Hold your ground and don’t forget to take good care of yourself.”

No comments yet — start the discussion!