Gone are the days when studying equaled solitary confinement. More and more students choose to study together so they can support each other. But space can often be an issue.
Those aren’t my words conference – they’re words on the website of STAN, a city-wide student support organisation that is funded in part by the City of Antwerp.
The solution that students came up with is called Study360 – where local companies take unused space and turn it over to student co-working space. There’s even an app so that students know which of the locations they can head to to meet eachother and some of the bigger graduate employers in the city.
Another project that STAN operates from its impressive city centre premises is called Kick Off. Back in 2011 the local council was lobbied to create a “Liveable Student City (‘Leefbare Studentensta’)” strategy, and it’s not just about housing.
One of the strands of that strategy sees STAN collaborate with the student councils and universities to create a conference for those that run student societies and associations – covering everything from marketing to first aid, mental health, working with the police, identifying and preventing sexual violence and reducing drug and alcohol harm.
In the evening, all students attending can then make their voices heard in an “interesting debate” about a relevant student theme related to the city. It’s a civic approach that SUs ought to be considering carefully in the context of Keir Starmer’s speech a week or so ago on communities, locality and devolution.
Something else that we came across on Day One of the Wonkhe SUs study tour to Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were STUVO Councils.
As well as a student representative body, every university has a “studentenvoorzieningen”, funded by the government through a separate budget line to provide student services – including subsidised food and catering, housing (both lettings and other services), financial assistance, mental health services, travel and support for student associations.
Crucially, these areas have distinct governance, where a council made up of at least 50 per cent students sets the budget and makes the key decisions. It means that what they provide remains responsive and accountable, and gives students a real stake in things like student costs or mental health strategies that gets beyond “sticking a sabb on a committee”.
The student association rep we met from Vrije Universiteit Brussels had just been central to a proposal to raise the price of fries by 50 cents – all as a way of avoiding price increases on healthier options. He knows the decision won’t be popular – but “when you have a lot of power you have a lot of responsibility too”.
One thing that we have found especially confusing around Belgium is that very few of the talented and articulate student leaders that we have met are paid. That’s partly about the economics of the country and the participation profile of the sector – but that’s not the whole story.
Where the UK system tends to focus on the election of 4 or 5 “super celebrity” sabbatical officers that are then expected (and fail to) to do everything, across Belgium there are multiple boards, committees and representatives – where the student leadership is distributed and has a focus on consensus building.
In Antwerp, over 200 “mandates” – jobs that need doing, projects that need more hands or committees that need student input are advertised each year by the student council, with a close link to employability and skills development in the process.
When it comes to careers, at the University of Antwerp there’s a two-pronged approach. There is a centrally run programme which culminates in a week of traditional employer engagement activities in March. But students we spoke to said that students are more likely to take part and engage in events run by other students – and so it’s through the subject associations where the majority of careers engagement happens.
Students told us that they are also better at getting the big names to attend, and that the activities they are supported to put on – including case competitions and community project work – are more creative too.
For national work, there are naturally two national unions in Belgium – one for the French speaking south and one for the Dutch north. Across Flanders, Vlaamse Vereniging van Studenten (VVS) – the Flemish Association of Students – annually identifies key issues for students in a “policy plan” and then forms working groups of student leaders from across the region to interrogate the issue, consult with experts, stage consultation and creativity events and draft rich, detailed policy positions.
These end up being discussed by decision makers and the media given the focus on evidence and solutions. It’s a reminder that policy and influencing work can be just as important as “campaigning” – and of the power of students coming together from different universities to discuss and mediate their interests in public.
For new students, some of the older student societies can only be joined by students who undergo a period of “baptism”. Students looking to join the society take part in activities held during the first months of the academic year, leading up to a ceremony in which they are rewarded with a cap (“penne”) with a long or short bill on the front, which identifies them as baptized students.
Some of the activities look dangerously close to hazing from a UK perspective – but following some high-profile cases, a focus on students being supported to regulate these activities to cause them to be safe and centred on the benefits of teambuilding reminded us both of the need to co-produce that codes of behaviour we ask students to abide by, and of the way in which social capital can improve belonging and outcomes.
On that, something else that was impressive was the way in which new students are inducted. Unlike the “pack everything into a week” approach that the UK clings to, students in Antwerp are both invited onto summer camp events to meet new students (and in many cases staff) so they have bonds before arriving, and student induction – led by subject based student associations – is framed as something that lasts 100 days rather than six.
“You can’t just become a good student overnight”, said one of the reps we met. Well quite.