Although not even a quarter of UvA students come from abroad, international students form a majority on the Central Student Council. And this has its consequences.
‘I wanted to become a member of the student council to help make the UvA a place where students have more contact with each other,’ Taimoor Baig (20) explains. From Pakistan, Taimoor started as a student of Economics & Business Economics in 2019 and a member of the Faculty Student Council of Economics & Business. This is the first student council in the history of the UvA to consist entirely of international students despite sixty per cent of the faculty’s students come from the Netherlands.
International students are not only over-represented on the Economics & Business council but on almost every student council at the UvA, with the Central Student Council (CSR) and the faculty council of Social & Behavioural Sciences following close behind in terms of over-representation.
This overrepresentation has caused problems in recent years, such as the Central Student Council struggling with members not attending meetings. According to Stijn van Uffelen however, a student at Radboud University and a member of the board of the Dutch Landelijk Overleg Fracties (a national organisation that supports all councils, councillors, education committees and assessors of Dutch universities), it is difficult to blame them. ‘Students from outside the European Union often pay between six and ten thousand euros to study here each year. [With these costs] you cannot afford to participate in the same intensive way as local students.’ While the financial compensation offered may be considered enough by Dutch students to compensate for a delay in their studies, this is usually not the case for international students, says Van Uffelen.
Nationally, about 30 per cent of the participation councils have an international member, he says. At universities that is about 50 per cent, but it is extremely rare that international students are in the majority.
About two years ago, the Central Student Council was overcome with criticism after it decided it would reimburse airline tickets for some of its members who wanted to attend a conference in Belarus (article in Dutch). The Dutch members of the student councils were against the visit to Belarus for geopolitical reasons, and because the council had only recently argued that the university should strive to become more sustainable. In their view, a ticket paid by the university to a forum with no clear benefit for student representation at the UvA was not considered sustainable. From the perspective of international students, however, flying is much less of an issue. They often fly up to twenty times a year: the plane is the means of transport to visit their family, says former CSR chair Roeland Voorbergen. According to him, some topics become more difficult to discuss on a council with many international students.
During his council year, Voorbergen became more skeptical about the large number of international students who are members of student councils. ‘In my opinion, the council is less about positions and more about the experiences of its members,’ he says. ‘If you look at the councils in this light, it is strange that international students, who have very different experiences from Dutch students, sometimes have the upper hand even if they only make up a limited part of the number of students. You may wonder whether that is a good representation.’ On the other hand, Taimoor Baig says, ‘international students feel more attached to the university than Dutch students. The Dutch often already have more social networks in the place where they come from, which means that they participate less in the university.’
Current CSR chair Nina Hol finds it difficult to say whether an overrepresentation of international students is problematic. ‘The UvA has a plan to build student housing for international students in Almere, but the international students on our council immediately raised the issue that travel costs would become very high. If there had only been Dutch students, we may have overlooked the fact that international students don’t get to travel for free.’ At the same time, the way in which the proceeds of the loan system are handled is very important for many Dutch students. ‘Because of its history, it really feels like it’s “our money”. On councils where there are no Dutch students, this might not be considered such an important issue.’
‘In a general sense, it is important that a participation council reflects the community it represents,’ said an UvA spokesperson. However, she also emphasises that this is a democratic body and that the UvA therefore cannot do much about it. ‘In order to achieve a good representation, it would be good if more students apply and more students vote.’
Read part 2 next week: a story on the issues that internationals have to deal with in student councils. ‘Only 10 percent of the budget was translated into English. ’