Rector Jeroen Geurts (left) en USC-chair Joep van Dijk
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Campus 28 March 2023

USC Chair: ‘Get a move on.’ Rector: ‘Let’s address that issue’

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Get the Chair of the University Student Council and the Rector Magnificus together in one room and you might expect sparks to fly. But that’s not how they operate. Both want the best for VU Amsterdam, only one of them wants things to happen quicker than the other thinks is possible.
BY Peter Breedveld en Marieke Schilp

The LinkedIn page of University Student Council Chair Joep van Dijk features a recent photo of him carrying Rector Magnificus Jeroen Geurts on his shoulders. The two clearly get along well.

Geurts is pictured giving a thumbs-up and grinning from ear to ear. When Ad Valvas arrives at the Rector’s office to interview them, they are deep in conversation. “A very interesting discussion”, Geurts says. “We were talking about how you can keep working on the basis of your values. That might be a good place for you to start.”

“The main value I hold myself to is being a stable factor for those around me”, Van Dijk explains. “For my fellow students, my girlfriend and my family. If they find themselves in trouble, they have me to fall back on. That means I have to be stable myself, otherwise I’m no use to them.”

“But to what extent does being a stable factor stand in the way of flexibility and adaptability?” Geurts wants to know. Van Dijk replies, “As long as you don’t pin yourself down all the time, you can be a stable factor.” Geurts responds, “So you are always opposed to holding back progress and excluding others? Those are immutable principles.” “Definitely!” Van Dijk exclaims.

Too friendly?

We start to wonder whether these two are being a little too chummy with each other. As a representative of the student body, shouldn’t Van Dijk maintain more of a critical distance towards the people in charge at VU Amsterdam?

“It’s having a good mutual understanding that enables you to be open and critical towards each other”, Geurts replies. And Van Dijk points out, “The University Student Council recently published an article in Ad Valvas criticising VU Amsterdam on the issue of homeless international students. Not exactly an article approved by the Executive Board.”

Van Dijk believes he is highly critical of the Board. For instance, he believes that the university’s transition towards sustainable energy “needs to shift up a few gears” and sees the million disposable cups still being used on campus every year as a disgrace. The way he sees it, those cups should have disappeared long ago. “It makes no sense at all. It’s for the Board to take the necessary steps and for the student council to say: ‘Get a move on, will you.’”

Jeroen Geurts: ‘The three of us on the Board can’t decide what is right for an entire university’

“The USC gave us a hard time on that issue at a recent meeting”, Geurts recalls. “And that’s something we really appreciated. A major part of our community, represented by the Student Council, is letting us know that we failed to make the right choice on this. That we could have picked that low-hanging fruit already. Get rid of all those plastic cups. Let’s address that issue.”

‘We don’t build housing’

“It’s very much about priorities”, Van Dijk says. “Another example is making buildings accessible to people with disabilities. We insisted that this needs to be sorted because it wasn’t high on the Board’s list of priorities. Last year, the Student Council put housing on the agenda: a huge problem and one that VU Amsterdam should have taken on board at a much earlier stage.”

“Of course the housing situation affects us deeply”, the Rector responds. “We don’t build or let out student housing ourselves but we work very hard to help our students and to warn them. The City also really needs to step up on this issue. It recently backed out of the student housing covenant.” On the issue of accessibility, Geurts says, “You know, we are already doing a great deal. In our new buildings, accessibility is a primary focus. And we are also taking effective action in response to signals about existing buildings. This is of major importance to us.”

“As a Board, you have a thousand and one things on your desk”, the Rector explains. “It’s like having a switchboard in front of you. Flick those switches in one direction all at once and the university could well go bankrupt, so that’s not an option. On the other hand, if you start flicking switches at random and leaving others untouched, then you are not organising your community properly and you won’t get far. That is why it’s so vital that representative bodies tell us, ‘We think it’s time to flick this group of switches.’ It means we can flick those switches this year, those other ones in five years’ time and that last group in 10 years. Then you have a plan. And as a community we have to look at that plan and take decisions together.”

Hugely ambitious Student Council

The reason for this interview is the University Student Council’s policy plan. It outlines the goals the Council has set itself and has been working to achieve for the past six months. Those goals are numerous to say the least. Not only does the Council want a say on issues such as continuation of studies (BSA), student evaluations, career guidance, student housing and study facilities, but it also wants to make the campus more sustainable and inclusive, with due consideration for students’ mental and sexual well-being. In addition, the Council wants to raise its profile among students, to encourage more students to stand for the university and faculty student councils, and for more students to vote in Student Council elections.

And that is by no means all. The policy plan contains a hugely ambitious programme. Could the University Student Council be biting off more than it can chew? After all, its members are only in office for one year. Wouldn’t the Council be better off setting two or three priorities and saying: these are our aims for this year?

Joep van Dijk: ‘There are times when you have to make assumptions. You can’t engage 26,000 students in a dialogue’

“A fair point”, says Van Dijk, “but the Council consists of 11 people who all dedicate between 24 and 40 hours a week to the university. What they do in that time goes beyond simply saying yes or no to policy. These are 11 individuals, each with their own ideals. They also have practical and specific ideas for the campus. Because they come from a migration background or have had negative experiences, or because they think the waiting list to see a student psychologist is too long. They want to try to change things at the university.”

What do you mean ‘not realistic’?

But shouldn’t you be a little more realistic in how you go about it, we ask. Van Dijk wants to know what we mean by “not realistic”. “On most of the points in our policy plan, we have already made progress. For instance, we now have a clear picture of how many VU students are homeless and, together with the International Office, we are looking at how to tackle this problem. We have put accessibility on the agenda and looked into whether the existing Islamic prayer room is up to scratch, which it isn’t. On sustainability, we have been able to highlight a number of issues. For instance, a lot of food is thrown away and we are currently looking at ways to pass it on to the food bank. We have also secured a commitment to get rid of all disposable cups on campus by mid-2024.”

And there’s more: the Council is concerned with the social welfare of students and is hopeful that by the end of this year, QR codes will be located across the campus, giving students access to a full list of the resources available to them. And the Council is working to raise its profile by means of an info fair, free toasted sandwiches and presentations at events such as the opening of the academic year. “On Instagram, we have upped our number of followers from 2000 to 3000”, Van Dijk reveals.

Right-wing students welcome to apply

The focus of the Student Council has shifted noticeably in recent years. Where it used to be primarily concerned with teaching, exam regulations and study-related stress, now issues such as sustainability and diversity have come into view. “But isn’t that the case everywhere?” Van Dijk asks. “Besides, the university has a pioneering role in society. As a student, it strikes me as logical to be committed to sustainability. It’s about your future, after all. The Student Council also exists to raise awareness: among students and among the members of the Board. That’s what we were elected to do.”

How does he actually know that this is the best way to represent students? “The Council is elected by students...”, he begins. True, but given the low turnout in Student Council elections, isn’t it hard to maintain that the Council fully represents the student body?

“We ask around and sometimes we organise an opinion poll, talk to faculty student councils and study associations”, Van Dijk says. “There are times when you have to make assumptions. You can’t engage 26,000 students in a dialogue, any more than a Dutch politician can engage with an entire population of 17 million.”

The Student Council has a reputation for being rather left-wing. Shouldn’t right-wing students be included too? Van Dijk responds enthusiastically to our suggestion. “Let them apply”, he says. “That would be great. If they stand for election, I’ll support them as I would any other candidate. Left, right, centre, bottom or top. Of course!”

“Student and staff participation in the running of the university is incredibly important”, the Rector points out, “and it concerns me that so few people are willing to get involved. And when they take their seats, they often do not represent the community as a whole, which also makes governance more difficult. Keeping up with current concerns on campus is trickier when you have fewer people around to join in that conversation with the community.”

Playing games

We ask Van Dijk if the Board ever uses that lack of representation against him. “No, that would be a cheap shot”, Van Dijk says. At the same time the Rector exclaims, “What a good idea!” He’s joking, of course. “The quality of governance can only suffer if you start playing those kinds of games”, Geurts warns. “You want people to actively contribute ideas and engage in discussion with you. The three of us on the Board can’t decide what is right for an entire university.”

Van Dijk is hopeful that they can boost voter turnout this year. “In our conversations on campus, we see how motivated people become when you ask them to actively engage with the issues the Council is facing. That was more challenging during the pandemic, when Zoom meetings were our main way of connecting. During that period, the number of available candidates also dropped significantly. On campus, there are many more opportunities to show who we are and that we fulfil a really important role for students. With that in mind, we hope this will be the year when we can field enough candidates and achieve a higher turnout.”

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Door Toni op 30 March 2023
"We have also secured a commitment to get rid of all disposable cups on campus by mid-2024.” The Executive Board's lack of ambition is indeed remarkable. While other universities have been using reusable cups and food containers for years, the VU's targets do not even meet the legal requirements. To cite the website of the Rijkswaterstaat: "From 1 January 2024, you can no longer offer disposable plastic cups and food packaging in places where customers immediately use them. For example, in your canteen, at the office, in your restaurant or snack bar, or at a festival." With that level of commitment, I highly doubt that VU will be the most sustainable university in the Netherlands in the near future.


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