28 June 2017 • HOP, by Bas Belleman
Student leaders look back
‘Little things can turn really big’
Last weekend, Jarmo Berkhout, Chairman of the Dutch National Student Union (LSVb), and Jan Sinnige, Chairman of the Dutch National Students’ Association (ISO), handed over the reins to their successors and then looked back on their year of defending the interests of students.
When they entered these positions, the two seemed as different as night and day. Jarmo Berkhout had just been one of the students occupying the administrative centre of Amsterdam University and looked all set for tougher political activism.
Jan Sinnige approached things from a different angle. He was a GroenLinks (one of the parties that scrapped the basic grant) candidate for the Utrecht Municipal Council and had founded a student jazz orchestra. Political activism wasn’t his thing.
It was an eventful year, they said: exciting, instructive, busy and challenging – if only for the elections. Sinnige: ‘Every year is an eventful year, but with the elections coming up, every interest group battles for attention. And they should. I think we did a pretty good job of promoting students’ interests. I can say I’m proud of what we did.’
How did they do it? One thing they did was to organise a debate among the party leaders at the Delft University of Technology together with the Landelijke Kamer van Verenigingen (national organisation of student associations), the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. ‘You just have to aim high,’ said Berkhout. ‘Then anything’s possible.’ And the fact that the right-wing party leaders didn’t show up didn’t faze them much. ‘Too bad but so what?’ said Sinnige.
Berkhout also mentioned the banner (‘The Museum of 35 Years of Government Cutbacks’) that the LSVb displayed by the Hofvijver near the Parliament. ‘That got a lot of attention.’ The ISO’s Student Loan Debt Meter – a website where you could see the debt mounting up by the second – also attracted visitors. ‘Little things can turn really big,’ said Sinnige. ‘During an election period, images become increasingly important.’
There weren’t many surprises, they said, but there were some. ‘What I hadn’t seen coming,’ said Berkhout, ‘was the extent to which the business sector got involved in opposing higher education. The employers’ organisation – the VNO-NCW – has a strong lobby. When I started out, what I expected was political opposition or support from educational administrators and the political arena.’
And here was a glimmer of disparity between the ‘left-wing’ LSVb and the traditionally more ‘right-wing’ ISO. ‘I’m convinced that getting education to respond better to the labour market would make an interesting challenge,’ said Sinnige. ‘Students are worried about getting a job. Universities of applied sciences and universities should be able to set their sights more on the world outside academia.’
But what we have here is more a difference in emphasis than a difference in attitude. Neither one wants companies to start determining what students have to learn. The ISO and LSVb often issue joint press releases and appear to present a united front. ‘Well, we’ve achieved something in any case,’ noted Berkhout with a smile.
They sat down together once and decided that they should stand united during the election year. They informed the universities and universities of applied sciences of this, too: that what’s important is higher education. Any differences they had could wait until later.
But had they expected to function so well together? ‘What I liked about Jan is that he stood up for his ideas and was outspoken all year long,’ said Berkhout. ‘Maybe I hadn’t expected as much. He’s not afraid to take on a fight with institutions or politicians.
‘To a certain extent, there’s a difference in style between the ISO and the LSVb,’ said Sinnige. ‘But there have been too many ISO chairpersons who, when looking back, wished they would have been more critical. Well, I can say I’m not one of them.’
They’re a bit like two roommates who maybe wouldn’t have chosen each other but still wound up as friends. ‘Kind of like that, although the ISO and the LSVb aren’t yet in the same building,’ said Sinnige. ‘Maybe we should discuss this sometime with the Government Buildings Agency.’ ‘Or we’ll squat in the same building,’ joked Berkhout.
They said they enjoyed their roles as student representatives. ‘We could actually get away with a lot,’ said Berkhout. ‘We could simply hang up a banner saying blatantly that the government had been making cutbacks on education for 35 years.’ ‘Or scream that every damned cent resulting from abolishing the basic grant should go to education,’ said Sinnige. ‘You won’t often hear that kind of language being used in the ivory towers of academia.’
Didn’t anything go wrong during their year? ‘No,’ said Berkhout with a straight face, ‘everything was perfect.’
They burst out laughing. Then Sinnige referred to the quality guidelines facing higher education: universities and universities of applied sciences will have to improve the quality of their education, and the ministry wants to arrive at agreements about this. But what kind of agreements? ‘We’ve been working on this for a whole year and they’re still not finished. It’s not like we’re back at square one, but there’s still no deal. It’s taking a long time.’
What would they tell their successors? ‘That it’s important work – satisfying and worthwhile,’ said Berkhout. ‘That they shouldn’t forget to enjoy it. You can sometimes get bogged down in the work because it never gets done.’ Sinnige’s tip: ‘Be outspoken. That’s what people appreciate most, even the ones who don’t agree with you and sometimes try to oppose you. They know what they can expect from you.
Will they go into politics? Not for now. Berkhout is going to do a master’s degree in philosophy. ‘I have lots of interests: it’s both a curse and a blessing. I might want to conduct research into the historic development of the new forms of extreme right movements. I don’t know yet if I want to go into politics.’
‘You can always become a politician later,’ said Sinnige. He said he’s already finished his degree programme and has to start looking for a ‘real job’. ‘But it was lots of fun – I’d do it all over again.’