Photographer:Fotograaf: Candidates awaiting the results of the elections last year. Photo: Joey Roberts
(Lack of) Student activism in Maastricht
Last week, Maastricht University held the 2016/17 elections for its Faculty and University Councils. But standing for election (or simply voting, for that matter) are not the only ways to get involved in student politics. Maastricht boasts a whole range of political activities, if you know where to look. But do students know where to look? And, more fundamentally, do they care to look at all?
“Are you voting in the Faculty Council elections?” “The what?” replies Eva de Haan, a second-year student at University College Maastricht (UCM). “I didn’t even know that was happening – I didn’t see any information anywhere.” Iona Donaldson, another student at UCM, did know about the elections: “I will vote, because I think I should vote when I have the opportunity to do so. But all the candidates are kind of the same.”
These responses are indicative of those of a number of students at Maastricht University. Either students aren’t aware that elections are being held, or they aren’t enticed by what’s on offer. This is reflected in the low turnout in the elections held last week: only 20 percent of students voted for the University Council, and the figures for the various Faculty Councils hovered around 30 percent, if elections were held at all. At the School of Business and Economics and the Faculty of Humanities and Sciences the number of students running exactly equalled the number of available seats.
“The university itself is already a flawed system. It’s classist and elitist and therefore doesn’t attract a broad audience of students, which makes it difficult to have any sort of radical politics.” Dina is a third-year UCM student who volunteers at the Mandril, a political and cultural centre that organises workshops and music events. Because of its contentious relationship with the city, she prefers to be referred to by first name only. Dina cites the restrictive nature of the university as a possible reason for failed university politics. “I’ve been reading about decolonising the university. Universities should become more inclusive, be open to people from all sorts of backgrounds. If they were, for instance, more open about their country’s colonial history, that would help. I don’t see universities today, Maastricht University included, doing this.” Asia, another UCM student involved at the Mandril, adds that “In theory the university is a fertile ground for politics, with all those people reading philosophical texts and studying political science. Sadly the momentum often dies down after one or two semesters.”
Tidy and theoretical
The sense of low levels of participation is seconded by local activist and recent FASoS graduate Bob, who also asked to have his last name omitted. “I don’t see a particular value in putting the spotlight on myself. I don’t mind if people connect me to my political action, but I’m only able to politically organise the way I do because of a bucketload of privilege.” He has some ideas that would explain low participation. “Students are constantly coming and going. We can’t build up an experience base for activism in Maastricht.” While he admits that this can also bring with it new experiences and fresh insight, the overall effect is detrimental. “And I’ve noticed something else: people are only interested in a particular kind of political involvement. It has to be tidy and theoretical, like Studium Generale. Other things, such as feminist events or demonstrations like the one we just did about refugees, are not well attended.” Bob was involved in organising the ‘Refugees Welcome in Maastricht’ demonstration, which originated in the group ‘Maastricht says No to War and Racism’ (MNWR). Only a handful of students showed up. “It may be that people don’t show up to demonstrations because they don’t care enough. For me, fighting oppression and exploitation is one of the most important things in my life. But if you’re less dedicated to politics you’re not going to sacrifice your weekend to take a train to a demonstration in Utrecht.”
“Maybe”, says David Darler, a third-year European Studies student, “there’s just nothing wrong here. If I look at the New University Movement, the Amsterdam branch was a lot more successful in terms of organising events and finding supporters. But they also experienced a lot more aggressive and public backlash.” He is referring to the series of sit-ins and protests that took place last year in response to the budget cuts in the humanities department at the University of Amsterdam. “And why should people care? We are so privileged in Europe; if we aren’t confronted with immediate problems threatening our own comfort we have no reason to do anything. Even if people do care, simply participating in a demonstration once is not enough.”
The movement needed sustained action over time with more dedicated members. In the end, Darler found the action in Maastricht too restrictive: “I wanted to put pressure on the national government. People thought I was too radical.” Students seem dedicated to discussing politics, but apparently see little need to turn words into action. Nowhere is this clearer than in university politics, and this not only stretches to voting. “Have you seen the NovUM General Assembly?” asks Darler. The student representative party’s general assembly is open to the public to encourage participation. “Nobody shows up but the party members.”
Not all is bad in Maastricht, though. “What I like about Maastricht”, says Dina, “is that it has a lot of potential for community organising. We may not be able to attract large groups of people for a demonstration like in Amsterdam, but there are things you can do every day on a smaller scale.”
Méabh Branagan, a board member of Amnesty International Maastricht Students (AIMS) and third-year UCM student, finds exactly that in her work. “AIMS is able to make an impact on a more personal level, by getting people to think about a topic in a new way. What usually goes well are events organised about a hot topic or something dramatic. For example, a while ago we made a ‘human border’ across the Sint Servaas bridge to raise awareness for refugees and how difficult it is for them to cross borders into Europe. Or people tend to like our info evenings, like the one we organised about Somaliland.”
What all these events have in common, however, is that there’s no long-term commitment involved, a problem Branagan sometimes faces within her organisation. “People have good ideas but it’s often difficult to organise a sustained group effort to keep those ideas afloat.” Emmeline Tacheau, an MA student of international law, agrees. She is on the board of the Refugee Project Maastricht, which collaborates with the student chaplaincy InnBetween. To organise events, the Refugee Project works with refugees she meets at the refugee centre, for example to make dishes from their home country to serve at intercultural evenings. “The refugees are so isolated, as the refugee centre is quite far from central Maastricht, and we want to change this. We want to bring people together.” The project has been running smoothly and Tacheau reports positive feedback from those who have attended the events, but she notices interest among students dwindles as the end of the academic year nears. “We have a few students on the board and some who volunteer at events. But in the spring semester it can be difficult to find people to attend.”
Branagan feels more involvement from UM would help. “Having more support from the university would be a welcome improvement. It’s very hard to collaborate between faculties as there are no spaces for events that are free to use and that aren’t affiliated with one particular faculty. A lecture hall that’s not linked to a faculty and that can be used free of charge would be great.”