Lyle Muns of the Dutch Student Union (LSVb) and Dahran Çoban of the Dutch National Student Association (ISO) are both saying their farewells. The phones they carried to take media enquiries have already been passed on to their successors, they say.
“That feels like something’s been amputated”, Çoban says. But not for Muns. “To me it feels like I’m in an oasis of calm. I can sleep in now. Nobody’s calling me out of my bed anymore.” That surprises Çoban: “Oh, I haven’t managed a lie-in yet. I still wake up at six-thirty.”
When the two student leaders took office, higher education was already in the grip of the first lockdown. Suddenly, everything had to be taught on laptops. Face-to-face teaching was out of the question and their presidential year was looking very different than expected. No visits to student communities – almost everything had to be done in front of a screen.
“It was a totally different year from what we had hoped for”, Muns declares, “and also really complicated. We could see how much impact the crisis was having on students’ wellbeing. We had to argue for more space. On the other hand, we couldn’t just say ‘Drop the restrictions’.”
‘Students were at the back of the queue when it came to relaxations’
“On occasions, we had to compromise”, says Çoban. “What do students want and what’s good for society as a whole? Students really did their very best. The press sometimes said that they caused the second wave, whereas I mostly saw them put whole houses under quarantine or draw up strict rules. Sometimes they weren’t allowed to return to their own homes because they’d left the bubble at Christmas to visit their parents.”
And at first their situation attracted very little sympathy. Housemates were not even allowed to sit together outside on a lawn, because officially they were not a ‘household’. That resulted in many – unjustified – fines and accusations.
Lack of understanding
“What I sometimes missed was understanding”, says Muns. “Students are in a vulnerable phase of their life and they were having to make quite large sacrifices. You’ve just moved to a new town and should really be getting to know all kinds of people, but now you have to limit your contacts – and not because you’re in that much danger yourself. If a few students forgot to stay socially distanced, as everybody did at some point, it was as if they were all out to kill off the elderly.”
For Çoban, “Students really were at the back of the queue when it came to relaxations. I received so many phone calls: why are they forgetting about us? Because most students were still picking up their credits, to the politicians it didn’t seem like there was a big problem. They were also very laid back about online teaching. We’re working online too, they said. But students don’t get paid for it and they usually have less space.”
Dahran Çoban was ISO Chairman: “We’ve set something in motion there.” (Photo: Susanne Ottenheym Photography)
So they started to resist. Muns describes the October 2020 demonstration on Museumplein in Amsterdam, under the slogan “I want to go to school”, as one of the highlights of his year. That protest made national news, finally putting student wellbeing on the agenda.
“We really doubted whether we should take to the streets for this”, Muns recalls. “But I’m glad we did.”
“We followed it up, too”, adds Çoban. “We commissioned research, which showed that students were really struggling. So we no longer had to argue that at every meeting.”
Even ISO, which usually prefers to talk rather than to demonstrate, took to the streets. Together with LAKS, the national action committee for school students, in February this year it organised a small gathering on Plein in The Hague. That protest was rather snowed under by the big news of the day, however: the government’s announcement of a new €8.5 billion economic relief package.
The Ministry of Education did display some empathy with students, say the two presidents, but that largely failed to filter through to the rest of government. The Outbreak Management Team was decisive in shaping policy, and it – certainly in the early days – viewed the crisis primarily from a virological perspective.
In the end, though, the student organisations managed to achieve more than they had originally expected. Next year, tuition fees are being halved across the board. There is always room for improvement, but Çoban and Muns believe that they have fought a good fight on that issue. Students sometimes think that their opinions have no weight, they say, but victories like this show that they can make a difference.
he biggest theme of the year should really have been the March 2020 general election. And yes, say the two presidents, they and their organisations did put a lot of effort into that as well.
‘We’ve made sure that tuition fees are going down for once’
ISO, for instance, compiled an online guide for voters highlighting party policies on a wide range of subjects. That forced some politicians, at least, to adopt better positions on issues of interest to students. Take the hated binding study recommendation. “That attracted a lot of attention”, says Çoban. “We’ve set something in motion there.” The hope is that the current strict benchmark – a source of real stress for first-year students, according to ISO – will be eased or perhaps even abandoned altogether.
In the aftermath of the election, the LSVb organised a national student strike with a mass rally on Malieveld in The Hague calling for abolition of the student loans system. “That was the coolest thing I’ve experienced all year”, says Muns. “A huge demonstration, all socially distanced, with no unrest, no water cannons... We managed it, and without the strike, the issue would long since have disappeared from the public eye.”
ISO was not represented on Malieveld. In fact, the two organisations have somewhat divergent perspectives on the future of student financing – ISO this week published its own proposal, based on research by Nibud, the National Institute for Family Finance Information. But neither group wants to highlight their differences in this interview. In broad terms, they are in agreement: the system has to be improved.
And that is now possible, they say. “For the first time in decades”, Muns declares, “there’s a chance that student financing is actually going to be improved. Before now, there have just been cuts and more cuts. We’ve already made sure that tuition fees are going down for once, even if only for a year.”
Now that they have completed their terms of office, what next? Muns is going backpacking in South America, on his own. “I’ve been working so hard all the time that my head was constantly full of adrenaline. There’s been no time for questions like, ‘What’s the crisis doing to me? What’s a year in the public eye doing to me?’ It will be good to reflect on the past year. For that, I need to be alone for a while.”
In itself, he adds, heading the LSVb has not been that bad. Having previously founded a trade union for sex workers, he says that, “If you really want to be in the spotlight, then stand up for them. By comparison, a student union is peanuts.”
Meanwhile, Çoban is going to start work on her Master’s in Jurisprudence and Philosophy of Law at Leiden. That means studying under controversial professors Paul Cliteur and Afshin Ellian. “Which says nothing about my own political preferences”, she stresses. “I just find the subject very interesting.” She thinks that she might already do some advance reading of the literature this summer.
A year in the public eye has not always been easy for her, either. Especially since outspoken women attract far more criticism than men. Sometimes it has felt threatening, and she was glad that nobody knew where she lived. But sometimes she has found the slating just really stupid. “Like when they’ve said that ISO was so white. At times like that I knew that they hadn’t for one second given me any thought whatsoever – and so they’d forget about me straight away as well.”
HOP, Bas Belleman