Do we study in a flawed democracy?

A PRIMER: Our representative councils are composed of three main levels (in order of importance): University Council, Faculty Councils and Education Committees (which oversee a single bachelor’s degree). These representative councils are built upon the principle of co-participation in university affairs and deal with staff on the University’s Executive and Faculty Boards.

Currently, the University Council comprises representation from four student parties:

  • Ondernemende Studenten Leiden (Entrepreneurial Students Leiden – ONS)
  • Lijst Vooruitstrevende Studenten (List of Progressive Students – LVS)
  • Christelijke Studentenfractie Leiden (Christian Students Group – CSL)
  • Democratic Students Party – The Hague (DSP)

When Leiden University’s Executive Board bypassed its Faculty Councils in planning how to  use an influx of government money—and presented this plan to the University Council a week before it was due at the ministry—there was chaos.

To give a sense of what’s at stake, the plan is supposed to outline how the University will spend a cash grant of 7 million euros in 2019 and a further 7 million in 2020.

Marlene van der Velden of the List of Progressive Students (LVS) was among those in the Faculty Councils who highlighted  to her counterparts in the University Council that representatives had not been consulted. She highlighted the presence of mandatory matching (a mandatory course students must complete prior to admission) in the plan for the humanities faculty, which was not something the humanities faculty council had agreed to.

On discovering that faculty councils had not been informed, consulted nor given the chance to consent, the University Council refused to vote in favour of the plan. According to Hannah Borst of the Christian Students Group (CSL), the Executive Board called a number of emergency sessions to consult the Faculty Councils, and pled personally with the members of the University Council to accept the plan in time for the deadline.

In the end, the plan was voted through, without meaningful changes or concessions, other than an agreement to observe formalities and planning when dealing with financial matters in the future.

Each party had different reasons for agreeing to pass the plan. Hannah Borst (CSL) and Marlene van der Velden (LVS) explained that their parties agreed in part because they felt they had no choice, given the looming deadline.

According to Dahran Coban of the Entrepreneurial Students Leiden (ONS), her group voted for the plan to preserve the good relationship between the Student Councils and the Executive Board.

Viktor Blichfeldt of the Democratic Students Party (DSP), the sole international student on the University Council, explained that as the proceedings were in Dutch, he could not understand what he was being asked to approve.

Is this episode representative of the quality of student democracy in Leiden?

Are students aware of elections? 8 students are elected onto the University Council annually. However, in-person promotion of elections is limited in most faculties to only the four days in which the elections take place.

Imogen Stevens of the DSP explains “You have essentially four days a year to be on campus, to promote university democracy, educate people about what it entails, and get people to vote. For us, our physical presence on campus then almost entirely disappears for the rest of the year, until the next election cycle. So it’s frustrating.”

Most representatives of student parties contacted by Entrepot echoed the difficulties of the double feat of making students aware that the elections happen before convincing them to vote or get involved.

Some restrictions are set by various faculties, which deem campaigning to be too disruptive to students and thus restrict parties’ in-person promotion. Some restrictions stem from an informal agreement between parties not to campaign without the presence of all other parties, thus leaving other avenues such as engagement with student associations off the table for political action.

Are there restrictions that impede plurality and participation? Leiden University requires a CEFRL B1 level of Dutch Proficiency to join the University Council. While this has not, in practice, prevented the election of the non-Dutch speaking Dano-Norwegian Viktor Blichfeldt to the University Council, it does significantly limit his ability to participate in proceedings, which largely happen in Dutch.

DSP: Viktor Blichfeldt believes his party represents the unique experiences of students who study in The Hague Campus.

“There’s been many conversations that I’ve had in university council where they’re discussing certain subjects and you realise international students might have a unique perspective on this or a separate issue attached to this that wouldn’t be discussed if it wasn’t for the fact that we had an international student representative on the university council.”

During his time on the university council, Viktor has pushed for more inclusivity towards the university’s growing international student population, and has raised their concerns on issues such as facilities (in Campus The Hague) or housing. He believes the university can do more by funding translation internships so that Dutch and International students can participate equally in student democracy.

An ad-hoc arrangement has been made to assist Viktor in his work through the funding of a language buddy, but debate on the university’s language policy is still ongoing. The DSP has proposed translation services for non-Dutch-speaking students in all the ‘co-participation’ councils.

At the University of Amsterdam and Erasmus University Rotterdam, two large, Dutch universities with significant international cohorts, there are no Dutch language requirements for ‘co-participation’ council membership.

While all other parties support the inclusion of international students in principle, their representatives are sceptical about whether this is achievable.

Dahran Coban (ONS) tells Entrepot, “I know a lot of Dutch people who would not be comfortable to talk about these very technical policies in English. Because they signed up to a Dutch university and they are doing their degree in Dutch. And that might be a very conscious choice to do these things in Dutch.”

LVS: Danielle Bos (left) and Marlene van der Velden believes her party champions inclusivity towards the diversity of Leiden University.

Danielle is pushing for gender neutral bathrooms in the social sciences building in Leiden. “My party member noticed that they had gender neutral toilets at Plexus and Wijnhaven, and we don’t really have that.”

Marlene points out that LVS’s university councillor, Gerieke Prins, wrote on a student organisation that allegedly discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation. “It’s still a work-in-progress, but we think it’s quite a bad thing if the university financially supports an organisation that does discriminate. And they will of course deny this allegation, but it’s important that we create a university that’s inclusive, not just diverse. That any person who has a problem, even if it’s a small gesture, it might still help some people.”

Is the turnout in elections low? Only 18% of those eligible use their vote in University Council elections. However, this might merely reflect a trend across the Netherlands. Turnout is lower at some universities: 15.8% at the University of Amsterdam in 2018; and between 10.8-15.9% for Faculty Councils at Erasmus University Rotterdam .

Smaller universities do, however, buck this trend. At Maastricht University 21.0%-33.93% voted in  Faculty Council elections in 2018 and at Tilburg University 45.7% voted in the 2018 University Council election.

ONS: Dahran Coban believes her party is a party with concrete policy ideas and the means to achieve them.

Dahran Coban is particularly proud of her party for leading the charge in removing the second year BSA. “[It] means that if you didn’t get all the 60 ECTS from your first year and if you didn’t get 30 ECTS from your second year, then after two years you could still get kicked out of your university. We didn’t like that idea, because it obstructed people from developing themselves outside of their education.”

Dahran says her party gives ‘active students’ more means to pursue a meaningful education outside the classroom. This means increasing the freedom of students through more places in exchanges, less Binding Study Advices (BSA) and making it possible for students to graduate with honours even if they study longer than three years. “Even just changing the mindset— within the honours academy that it’s not a bad thing to do things besides your study—would be a great thing.”

Are there issues with the functioning of the council? Marlene van der Velden (LVS) is concerned that student representatives are not taken seriously by the university boards with which they are supposed to ‘co-participate.’ “Maybe it was just small things, where at least I felt, we’re not really being taken seriously and they just try to push things through. And it’s not because they’re terrible people, it’s just because things happen. Maybe it’s because they don’t organise it well. In the end it just boils down to us not really having what we have a right to. And then we just have to be like, ‘okay it’s fine, I agree with it,’ because it’s just so last minute that we cannot really change it.”

Most councillors interviewed by Entrepot expressed that a lot of determination is needed to make change through the University Council. The policy which on video recording of lectures took five years to implement, requiring the work of five successive elected University Councils to see through.

CSL: Hannah Borst (left) and Fabienne Miltenburg believes that her party champions a push for an education that is more accessible for all.

A year ago, Leiden University signed a letter of intent for more inclusive education, to promote the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. According to the Fenestra Disability Centre, 10% of students in Leiden University have a disability. In principle, this letter of intent means that Leiden University should become a campus without boundaries which prevent disabled students from accessing their education.

“And that’s not happening right now,” Hannah points out. “A lot of people need help or changes in classrooms. We want to hold them up to their promise and say yeah, it’s alright that you sign that, but what are you going to do now?”

Examples suggested by Fabienne include reducing the amount of additional administrative work that disabled students face or mobility issues such as inaccessible classrooms.

Fabienne Miltenburg (CSL) told us, “the processes are really slow. Big changes are not common. We can fight for a broken elevator being fixed. Accumulated, those changes are pretty big and they can mean something, but we only have meetings once every six weeks for faculty members. So you’re not following a hot TV show every week. It’s really hard to keep track and usually, let’s be honest, they’re pretty boring.”

However, Dahran Coban (ONS) points out that “sometimes, people perceive the system as a bad system where you can’t get things done. But sometimes, those things you want to change, if you really think about them, you might not want to change them.”

Do parties offer voters a meaningful choice? Most initiatives from the University Council are uncontroversial, such as video recordings of lectures, or introducing sustainability measures on campus. They are backed by student parties regardless of which party initiated them. However, the parties do differ in the key views they represent.

Entrepot asked members of each party whether they thought Leiden University’s student democracy is a flawed democracy:

Fabienne Miltenburg (CSL): “No. Our democracy works. People can find their information and they can get engaged. If they choose not to, that doesn’t mean that the political system doesn’t work. It just means that there’s not enough visibility, but, we’re perfectly democratic. We are let in on every decision of the university under our jurisdiction, and we can just give our say, but people just decide to not respond on it.”

Viktor Blichfeldt (DSP): “100%. Less than a fifth of students vote and that’s just insane and inherently undemocratic.”

However, he maintains that despite these flawed institutions, the university council is still an opportunity for students to make meaningful change to everyday life on campus: “We also have a decisive vote on certain things, like the budget, or education and examination regulations (…) that decides how the entire academic programme and the entire academic setting is and how examinations function. You can vote on it every year.”

Dahran Coban (ONS): “I think we can set out to do everything that we want if we do it the right way: The politically right way. The main thing is getting to how you do this. For instance, if I were to want to change a part of policy that I don’t agree with, I can just ask the university board to change this. I can also go around, look around at what other universities do, look around at how we do this and why we do this, and usually when you find out why we do something, you suddenly agree with this piece of policy.”

Marlene van der Velden (LVS): “Yes, I’d say so. it’s not the best possible way. but it comes down to making things visible and making students aware that it exists and aware of why it’s important. At this moment it relies on us as student parties to do so.”

Her fellow party-member, Danielle Bos, believes that more can be done by the university to promote democracy: “In most programmes, you have tutor groups in the first year where you learn the basic stuff. I think maybe they should incorporate ways to inform people that we have elections.”

What do you think?

Is ‘co-participation’ in Leiden University flawed? What changes would you make to ‘co-participation’?
Do you feel represented or excluded by the major student parties in Leiden?
Share your thoughts with Entrepot.