Last Monday, all members of the University Council and the faculty and service councils were invited to take part in a ‘participation day’ on the Buitenplaats Vaeshartelt estate just outside the city. Participation at UM could be improved, noted University Council president Jonathan van Tilburg during the opening – and indeed, the turnout was a good illustration of this. Less than half of all council members showed up, with student delegates being most conspicuously absent.
More generally, voter turnout in the elections is often low, especially among students. Certain members of the university community, such as master’s students, are rarely represented at all in the councils. The difficulty is that by the time master’s students arrive, the new councils have already been elected, and they leave immediately following the election of the next cohort. PhD candidates and senior staff, too, are often absent from the councils. Perhaps the emphasis should be less on representation in councils and more on participation, suggested the UM president Martin Paul; for example, engaging staff and students in policy development. The Strategic Programme was drawn up with the input of many people, as Paul pointed out, but for it to actually work ongoing input is necessary.
This may call for other forms of democracy, such as town hall-style meetings or work floor meetings on specific themes – if only to find out what is actually going on in the university community. In the many group brainstorming sessions, this was one of the most common issues: that the council representatives themselves are by no means always aware of everything that’s going on. “How can we rectify that?” Van Tilburg wondered. But there are two sides to this story: council members often feel buried under paperwork. Information overload is just as problematic as a lack of information, making it impossible to see the forest for the trees. Further, how can the information from one council be made available to others, to save each council from constantly having to reinvent the wheel? One possible solution could be a UM-wide digital platform where information is easy to access and presented in a structured way.
Several groups raised the nagging question: if UM really prizes such values as responsibility, cooperation, transparency and openness, why does so much of what the councils do take place behind closed doors? What purpose does all that confidentiality serve? One recommendation was to ensure that openness is the norm and make exceptions only where genuinely necessary.