Concerns about student welfare, the shortage of study places and the shift to online teaching. The pandemic painfully exposed the vulnerabilities of the TU Delft community. The TU Delft Central Student Council went through an intense year as the Executive Board and other TU Delft departments called on it more and more frequently. Delta looks back at the past year with Job Vlak (Chair Student Council, Education), Eva Slingerland (Secretary Student Council, Education), Pepijn van Sabben (Campus), Sam Vijlbrief (Campus) and Guus Gorsse (Student Affairs).
Did you have any doubts about what a Council year would be like during a pandemic?
Slingerland answers, saying that “We had just gone into the first lockdown when we were preparing for the Council year. In September we were optimistic and thought that we could return to campus in February. Nobody expected the year that followed. There was much understanding though as everyone was in the same boat.
How do you build strong bonds through video screens?
“By being open right from the start,” says Vlak. “Both parties (the Student Council is made up of members of two different parties, Oras and Lijst Bèta, Eds.) took the responsibility to first come together as a united front towards the Executive Board. We also had monthly feedback sessions in which we immediately dealt with any friction. By maintaining this openness among us, we created a strong bond.”
‘Student participation was never more important than during this pandemic’
And then suddenly you are sitting at the - virtual - table with the Executive Board. How did you experience this?
“We really had to get used to it at first,” answers Van Sabben. “It is only along the way that you realise that you do have a degree of influence. You get better at working out how to make sure that you achieve the things that you find important. It was a good experience to enter into discussion with an Executive Board member.”
“They really did listen to us”, adds Slingerland. “Partly because during the corona crisis, TU Delft wanted to know what was happening in the students’ world. If you hear Vice Rector Magnificus Rob Mudde refer to something we tabled at a meeting, you know that you have influence.”
Do you have a lot of influence?
Vlak answers. “More than you think, but it is not always visible as a lot happens behind the scenes.”
Can you give an example?
Vlak continues. “Student participation was never more important than during this pandemic. Administrators were tearing their hair out as they did not know how to solve certain problems. The Communications Department asked for our advice on how they could best reach students.
However, our biggest success this year is the nationwide approach to lowering the binding study advice. That agreement came about thanks to an initiative of the TU Delft Student Council.”
Are there any successes that went by unnoticed?
Van Sabben answers. “The creation of study places on campus. That did not go smoothly. While other Dutch universities offered study places, the TU Delft campus remained closed. At a certain point, study places were made available at associations in town but not at TU Delft itself. I wrote a protocol to show that you can create safe and responsible study places on the Drebbelweg. It led to heated discussions between the Student Council and the Executive Board, but ultimately resulted in the opening of Pulse and the increase in the numbers of study places at faculties and in the Library.”
Slingerland adds that “Another success is that FlexDelft, a temporary employment agency, opted for a new pension fund. We argued for a sustainable choice in a letter to the Executive Board. Not only did TU Delft then opt for a sustainable option, but five other universities did so too.”
‘Collegerama will look like Netflix soon’
This year students have frequently expressed their displeasure with digital education. They have experienced delays and got caught in a confusing web of platforms. What have you done to improve the current situation?
“We argued for the zachte knip,” says Vlak. “It means that bachelor students who were unable to get all the credits they need because of the crisis may start on their master degree programme. We are also working on a new user environment in Collegerama which has become old-fashioned and a maze of documents.”
“It will look like Netflix soon,” adds Van Sabben, “You can subscribe to a module and it will remember where you were the last time.”
Slingerland gives another example. “The laptop project was extended too. Apart from laptops, we now have screens and other home office accessories on offer at reduced prices. The Student Council set up this project very quickly.”
Vlak gives yet another example. “There will be a live occupancy tool halfway through the next academic year. You will be able to see whether there is a study place available on campus. It will initially be for 10 halls.”
A Nuffic survey of 357 international students showed that most are worried, lonely, bored or even depressed. Is the Student Council paying any attention to the welfare of international students?
Gorsse explains that “We connected the international student associations to TU Delft and the municipality. This led to regular meetings between the chairs of the associations, the Executive Board and the Mayor. This will continue in the future. This was the first time the associations were listened to and this meant that we could set up various initiatives.
What kind of initiatives are there?
“A directory of associations for international students,” says Gorsse. “Before last year there was only one for Dutch students. The new one now includes all the international student associations. It helps both international students and TU Delft if many international students are members. The associations are a social safety net. People there keep an eye on each other instead of only sitting by themselves in student rooms.”
Vlak adds that “We were also involved in setting up the 5voor12, the VSSD activity Walk & Talk and we organised the Well-being week.”
Slingerland says that “The Student Council also has to approve plans such as the Nationaal Programma Onderwijs (national education programme). All universities receive a budget from the Government to help students catch up with any delays because of corona. A part of that budget goes to student welfare and TU Delft wanted to use it for prevention, but we demanded to have more psychologists. There are long waiting lists and something must be done now. Our demand was accepted.”
‘You learn to put things into perspective’
Did anything not work out?
Vijlbrief gives one example. “Yes, the way that the binding study advice was postponed was a thorn in our side. Anyone getting a postponement of the binding study advice has to obtain all the credits of the first year in the second year. This is not a legal requirement, but one imposed by TU Delft. We had heated discussions with the Executive Board to get them to change their mind but it didn’t work.”
Vlak adds that “At the beginning of the year you define your policy and take on too much. In the end you have to make choices.” Gorsse agrees. “Exactly, sometimes you just have to put something aside as something else is more important. Corona brought completely new situations and we had to constantly change tack. “I really learned to set priorities.”
Van Sabben adds that “You learn to put things into perspective. Some things are simply out of reach. At first when we did not manage to get extra study places and other students asked me why Leiden could do it and we could not, I put the blame on myself and asked myself if someone else would have managed it sooner? You need to be careful that you don’t get sucked in to this way of thinking.”
You will take your leave at the end of August. What advice would you give your successors?
Slingerland says that they should “Celebrate the successes! You do so much in a year so it is good to step back and see what you have achieved.”
Van Sabben adds “Get the most out of each day by looking at what can be done instead of what can’t be done.”
For Gorsse they should “Make sure that negative issues don’t dominate. Put things in perspective, even if they seem to be going badly.”
Vlak says “If we look back, we should be proud of what we have achieved. And we should be proud of the unique, strong bond that we built as Student Council members. Despite all the difficulties, we did a fantastic job.”