It’s like Karaoke, but more about community

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Livia Scott is Wonkhe's Community and Policy Officer

One of the oldest and most important student traditions in Belgium involves events organised by student associations that combine singing songs and drinking beer – although these days non-alcoholic options are available.

There are strict, traditional rules which must be followed and some of the songs in the “codex” song books – many of which describe student life and struggles through the years – date back to the middle ages.

Evidently many students wear lab coats for protection – and one aim is to get people that you’re meeting to sign them so that when you graduate “you have a nice coat which smells of beer and memories”.

The “cantus” was one of many extraordinary things we encountered on Day 0 of this year’s Wonkhe SUs study tour around Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

This morning around 45 students’ union officers and staff from across the UK will meet in Brussels to begin a coach trip aimed at fostering links with and learning from others representing and serving students – and while the trip doesn’t officially start until later this morning, a small group of us have already enjoyed waffles in the home of the oldest university in the Low Countries, and Belgium’s largest university, KU Leuven.

Some 60,000 students are enrolled here, many of whom spend their time socialising in their “Fakbar” – a Flemish word derived from the word “faculteitsbar” (faculty bar). Part common room, part social learning space and part pub, between hours of teaching the Fak is where students cosily congregate for chats, coffee, soup or beer – as well as the place to be of an evening for parties – and are staffed entirely by unpaid students to keep prices low.

They’re an important reminder of the importance of “third” spaces – neither personal homes nor university teaching/study areas – that students feel are theirs and use as spaces to foster relationships in.

The official student representative body at the university, the “studentenraad” has a name for the way it works to improve education – COBRA – which loosely stands for cooperation, reflection and action, with a focus on checks and balances.

Course reps here are framed as “moderators”, who along with external stakeholders, alumni and industry experts, help to develop four year quality reports for each programme that are then published for students. It’s a richer and more productive approach than the SU trying to sum up the student experience for the whole university in 10 pages – as is happening now in England.

One of the things that’s particularly impressive about the SU is its work on study costs. Take out the need to “sell” the university in a much less marketised system, and it opens the door to a joining university-SU project aimed at keeping studying as affordable as possible for every student, as well as giving prospective students a realistic view on the cost of their studies. Every year students keep diaries on their purchase of education related stuff – books, materials, study trips or even travel costs to placements – and the results generate pressure on programme committees to keep costs down.

With this many students around the city, student housing is naturally something of a worry – but various schemes make things more straightforward for students. LOKO, the separate SU for the city (encompassing other HE providers’ students), the universities and the local council have collaborated on their Kotlabel scheme – where a plaque on the façade of a building means that rooms meet specified (and higher than legal minimum) standards for living quality, fire safety, contract fairness and student friendliness.

And when students struggle to get their deposits back, or end up in other legal disputes with their landlord, the SU’s housing service has enough funding and capacity from the university to launch the legal cases that individual students could never afford to mount – acting as a tenant’s union.

The events staged by “Mr President” Bram Schaefer and his team (all volunteers) are all the more impressive for the work being put in alongside studies. Every November a high-profile Student Education Congress peer-delivers sessions on everything from study skills to mental health awareness. Think-abroad month stages events designed not just to cause single country bonds, but links between home and international students. An interfaculty theatre festival consists almost entirely of performances from students who aren’t studying the performing arts, and the 24-hour run is the biggest event in Flanders by and for students – a race between student groups that’s all about participation rather than elite athletes.

The international work here is impressive too. A dedicated international student centre – Pangea – provides a space where the university’s international student community can meet each other, volunteer, get advice and support from the SUs and the university, and build their country’s student society. And to ensure that issues are addressed with focus, the Studentenraad runs two student representative councils – one for home students and another for international students – the latter of which covers everything from educational issues like academic misconduct and teaching to student participation, immigration and integration.

Wandering around one of the faculties, we chanced upon a faculty-based ombuds – a dedicated member of professional services staff whose role is to mediate between students and academics to support students’ associations with quality assurance participation and help students with extensions, mitigating circumstances, complaints and appeals. Each student is also allocated a study career counselor who helps students to think about “who they are, where they stand and where they want to go”. And study counsellors focus on transition, offering professional support and “learning process guidance” to students as they develop their academic skills.

Later we’ll meet with colleagues from across Europe at the European Students’ Union (ESU), find out more about alternative assessment at one of Brussels’ universities, and we’ll travel to Antwerp to learn more about city-wide collaboration and student representative models.

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