“Every complaint is one too many”

Confidential advisor for students: fewer complaints in 2019 than in 2018

23-11-2020

MAASTRICHT. Fewer complaints from students about undesirable treatment while student numbers are rising, how is that possible? The confidential advisor for students looked into 36 cases last year, ten less than in 2018, while the university has expanded by approximately a thousand students. This raised questions in the University Council.

According to the 2019 annual report, the complaints were about discrimination by fellow students or employees, unethical and disrespectful behaviour by lecturers, and sexual harassment. As far as the latter is concerned, five students were harassed by a fellow student (in three instances) or a civilian (two instances). A majority (78 per cent) of those who approached the confidential advisor, were foreign students. In 2019, there were no complaints from medical students on internships.

Interns

“Every case of harassment or discrimination is one too many,” said student council member Thomas Vaessen during a University Council committee meeting last week. But the low number of complaints and the fact that interns have not reported to the confidential advisor, made him raise his eyebrows too. How is that possible? Do students not know of the existence of this advisor? Or can they not see the wood for the trees (because of the large number of places that a student can go to with a complaint, student council members Yasmin Hashish and Vaessen wanted to know. The first, who is a medical student herself: “We know that interns experience undesirable behaviour in the hospitals. Maybe they complain to the hospital? And if they do, does the UM hear about that?” No, the university doesn’t hear about that, because this is confidential information, rector Rianne Letschert replied. “But we may be able to find out how many there were.”

The committee and the rector concluded that students must be better informed about the existence of the confidential advisor. In addition, the rector promised to look into the number of hours of the appointments for both the confidential advisor for students (0.2 FTE) and the one for employees (0.5 FTE). Way too little, the committee said.

Employees

The confidential advisor for employees received 87 cases in 2019. Considerably fewer than in 2018 (116); the annual report states that this is most likely the result of the appointment of the ombudsman in February 2019. The complaints concern among others harassment, abuse of power, and bullying.

The majority is from academic staff (49). As is the case with the ombudsman, the number of PhD candidates approaching the confidential advisor is relatively high (23). It is unclear whether there is any overlap in the complaints submitted.

What does a confidential advisor do? What does an ombudsman do?

The UM ombudsman (‘man’ is not a gender indication, the word comes from Swedish, in which case ‘man’ in compounds stands for ‘person’) started on 1 February 2019 at the initiative from Lokaal Overleg. She deals - most of the time - with existing or impending conflicts between staff members and their superiors.

She can – with the approval of the employee – carry out independent research, start mediation, and give independent advice to the Executive Board, which can subsequently intervene. This is contrary to the confidential advisor, who focuses on complaints regarding undesirable behaviour and by definition is on the side of the person who submits the complaint and has no research authority and (contrary to the ombudsman) has no right to information.

The UM participated in a trial project entitled ‘University Ombuds Position’ with three other universities. The evaluation has led to the decision by all universities to appoint an ombudsman no later than 2021.