At Vrije University in Amsterdam, undergrads get to know fellow students before their studies begin.
Its “Bachelor Introductiedagen” programme ensures that you “no longer feel awkward” – because when you walk into the lecture hall a few weeks later, “you already know everyone!”
Students are divided into groups of sixteen and allocated two trained student mentors who know their way around the campus and Amsterdam – and as well as games and activities with other students, students see performances, participate in workshops, discuss their values and behaviours and identify the associations they’ll take part in.
They can even choose between going “all in” on a five day programme, or can opt for something shorter – and groups are structured so that diversity and difference is emphasised.
VU has plenty of students who are first-in-family or less “academic”. So to reduce imposter syndrome and boost belonging, separate “Better Prepared” days see students take part in workshops, write their first academic essay, explore their own motivations for study and reflect on their talents, competences and pitfalls.
Meanwhile at Utrecht’s week long, city wide pre-freshers week, as well as parties, city tours and a freshers’ fair, every association is invited to provide an activity in the inspiration fair, the culture fair or the workshops programme.
It means that new students don’t just join Drama Soc, they see a performance – as well fixing bikes, taking part in debates and learning study skills – all put on by a board of six students who take a paid year out to make it happen, flanked by over 700 student volunteers from across the city.
They are some of the impressive student-led projects that we came across on Day Two of the Wonkhe SUs study tour around Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany – which first saw us travel to Utrecht to meet the country’s two national student representative organisations.
Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg (ISO) tends to focus on policy, lobbying and influencing – while Landelijke Studentenvakbond (LSVb) is more activism and campaigns focussed. This isn’t about largesse – both run on a skeleton of resource but allows the two, in their words, to both “channel students’ anger and idealism” as well involving them as “partners for practical solutions”.
That said, LSBv still takes evidence seriously – its student research agency recruits a large student panel every year and produces impressive reports on everything from blended learning to harassment and sexual misconduct – and are regularly quoted in the media.
As in all of the cities we’ve visited so far, student housing shortages are a major problem – so much so that following a debate in Parliament, the Netherlands’ minister for higher education wrote to universities in December asking them to stop recruiting new international students altogether while a solution is found.
UvA accepted so many international students that many first and second year students are still homeless, couch surfing or staying at hotels without anywhere permanent to stay, paying full tuition but struggling to budget for food without a kitchen
— Harriet (@harriet_artist) November 4, 2021
There’s a deep discomfort around the issue in the student organisations we’ve met – nobody wants to blame study migrants for what amounts to planning failure, not least because far right parties in each of the countries do.
But on this “internationalisation” agenda there’s a real pattern of concerns everywhere about the rapidity of expansion and infrastructure to service it, and a clear sense that traditional European-wide quality assurance assumptions are not fit to address some of the sharper issues on student support, academic experience and teaching quality in master’s programmes in particular.
One common concern for the student associations and the universities we’ve met is mental health and post-Covid attendance and engagement – although at VU we were surprised to see a bustling building full of students sat in groups at 6.30pm.
At first we thought that teaching was running late, or maybe a conference was on, or that the campus was full of student housing. But it turns out that the actual key to a stickier campus is good quality, inexpensive and subsidised food. One for the working groups, that.
In Amsterdam, space for students to do their thing has always been at a premium – so back in the 60s something called CREA was created with the aim of making social and cultural education a fundamental part of student life.
After a few moves around the city, it’s now housed in a former diamond polishing factory (“Maatschappij”) in the heart of the Roeterseiland campus, and it’s a place where where thousands of students meet every year both to undertake arts and cultural activities and get involved in over fifty student organisations.
Across universities in the Netherlands, student representation is taken very seriously. At Utrecht University students who are members of university council, themed committees, faculty boards or programme committees all get paid for their time – a marked contrast to the way in which we overload sabbatical officers in the UK. And in Amsterdam each year the Executive Board appoints a student assessor who sits in on their meetings, liaises with the different student groups and gets student-related topics on the agenda.
Its Central Student Council is in an interesting position when it comes to influence and power. The CSR has a statutory right to be consulted on certain decisions, and responds by issuing an opinion following a discussion in plenary. And a right of consent means that the CSR’s approval is required for various aspects of university policy to be approved – including the budget.
It’s a nuclear option that’s rarely used – and in fact means that the University Executive Team spends more time thinking about the issues that students will be concerned with as it puts together its plans.
As well as healthy doses of student representation, anyone studying at VU Amsterdam can enlist the services of the student ombudsman. Like the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA) only localised, she handles complaints and appeals as well as allegations of misconduct concerning other students or staff – as well as providing students with information about relevant regulations and procedures and what their rights are.
Both the central student representative council and the subject based bodies then work positively with her on the issues that come up in her detailed trends report – seeing the role as complementary to rather than a rival of their work. It’s a model that briefly debated in England and Wales a decade ago – and one that almost certainly should be revisited given some of the contemporary challenges students face in rasing concerns.