On May 31, less than a month after the publication of this piece, the student body of the University of Amsterdam is called to the polls to elect its student councils. These councils, and the students that comprise them, will have the task of representing their peers before the university’s administration, while implementing measures and proposals to improve the lives of their voters. This is not a simple task, and neither is getting elected, but many are the ones who see this as their calling.
At the University of Amsterdam, student representation works in a manner akin to that of a regionally divided political structure. The central student council (CSR) interacts directly with the Dean and central administrative authorities, implementing the entire student-body’s will. Half of its 14 members are elected through centralized lists by all students, while the other half are representatives from the faculty student councils. Furthermore, at a more “local” level, each faculty elects its own student council (FSR). Thus, each student has the ability to elect two different representative bodies: one to tackle the overreaching issues of their education, and the other to represent them in more punctual matters regarding their field of study and student community.
Both councils play a central role in ensuring that student voices are heard throughout decision processes that impact their student lives significantly. Just in the last year, the CSR, with the support of many FSRs, including the SEFA led Economics and Business FSR, sued the UvA over the proctoring methods used in the supervision of examinations. Although the suit was unsuccessful, and the issue is still ongoing, this struggle has helped cement the crucial role these representatives play in preventing blatant abuses of authority. Another, more recent example, was the misguided decision by the UvA to unilaterally cancel student exchanges for the next academic year. It took no more than a week for the councils to present various petitions against the measure and rally enough support for the central authorities to question their decision. On the other hand, those same UvA authorities are particularly aware of the consequences of a weakened student body representation. In 2015, the later known as the Bungehuis and Maagdenhuis occupations, in which unilateral reforms of the humanities faculty led to unrest and the eventual arrest of 46 protestors, were a mediatic disaster that could have been easily resolved with a more active involvement of student representatives. All signs seem to indicate that the university learned its lesson, and the voice of students is now heard.
However, although there are plenty of candidates and a multitude of parties running, these upcoming student elections face significant problems. The main one, and perhaps the one from which all others stem, is the low forecasted voter turnout. Although no opinion polls are made available before elections, a simple extrapolation from the downwards trend of past elections, and the lack of a return to on-campus education, point towards the possibility of seeing the lowest numbers in decades. Even though the elections will be held electronically, and voters can cast their ballot regardless of their geographical location, the impossibility of on-campus interaction has left many students disenfranchised, uninterested in participating in university institutions. In fact, general turnout in the 2020 elections fell by about 2%, from 13% in 2019. Unfortunately, one of the most pronounced drops in numbers was at the faculty of Economics and Business, where just over 14% of students cast their ballot, compared to over 24% the year before. Why has this issue become so widespread throughout the UvA in particular? The answer could seem deceptively easy, seeing as the disconnect students feel with the university after having been subjected to over a year of distance education will certainly spill over into the electoral turnover just as it did last year. However, the downward trend also has a deeper-rooted explanation. It follows a general dissatisfaction of the youth with political processes and institutions, that has only been reinforced by the political instability and inefficacy the pandemic has brought about. Thus, although it would be preposterous to assume that university elections are perceived equally to their state-wide counterparts, or that their ramifications are equivalent, they serve as a good litmus test for the state of democracy among the youth.
Furthermore, the importance of these elections cannot be understated. In the short term, the elected students will have to oversee a return to offline education that will be marred by health concerns and accusations of discrimination as national vaccine rates leave international students with unequal opportunities to return to Amsterdam. On the long run, the need to reverse this downward trend in electoral participation is key to revitalizing a democratic culture at university, which is crucial both for the interests of students and the university as a whole. Solutions to the issues discussed above will not come easily. Indeed, the general youth discontent with politics cannot be solved with a few awareness posters and Instagram ads. However, a concerted effort, by engaged students and the staff alike, to continuously spread the virtues of democratic culture, as if it were gospel, will go a long way towards creating a better university, and better preparing students to be the citizens of the future. In conclusion, the first step towards a solution is simple, and shortly within our grasp: Vote!