Turning decision makers into puppets

By Anne-Kirstin Berger and My Pham, pictures by Studenterrådet

Universities have always been political arenas. Fifty years ago, on the 19th of April 1968, Danish students went to the streets of Copenhagen demanding less hierarchical and more participatory structures. Half a century later, students of Aarhus University are demonstrating again. “Bevar vores Studienævn” (Protect our board of studies) is printed on a banner in front of Studenterhus behind which a group of about 100 people is gathering. The students fear that the university democracy is at stake once again.

“Protect our boards of studies“ is what the students demand during the manifestation (photo: Studenterrådet)

The protest came after the release of a 37-recommendation list by Ministry for Higher Education and Science on March 12th. The suggestions are meant to improve university programmes. The last two points in the list suggest that only the university management shall take decisions concerning the content and quality of education – without the participation of student representatives. Being aware of the impact of such a change, the commission comments: “The study boards will continue to play an important role in the work to develop curricula, follow up on evaluations and qualifications etc. within the limits set by management.” In other words, though not being completely eliminated, study boards’ roles are now reduced from decision-making to consulting only.

Head of the executive committee of the student organisation Studenterrådet (Student Council) at Aarhus University, Emil Outzen, fears that the proposal would curb the students’ power to have a say in university matters. “The boards of studies are the foundation of the study-related democracy that we have in the university”, he says. “It equalizes students and employees in the goal striving for better education.” With the reform, Emil fears, the boards would become mere councils with much less power.

Power to the students

Indeed, the boards of studies give student representatives a significant influence: they have a seat on the table when the content of a study program, the types of exams and future investments in the study infrastructure are discussed. Every department, consisting of related study programs, has its own board. It is the students who vote for their representatives during the university elections, that are held every year in November.

In Emil’s experience, the boards do not merely rubber-stamp whatever decision may be taken: “When I was myself a part of the board of studies a few years ago, we actually had a small fight with the leader of the department”, he remembers, recalling a controversy about abolishing the oral defence of the master’s thesis. “Together with the researchers and the teachers we finally agreed not to remove it, and we found another solution to the problem.” The episode shows how student representatives can actively shape fundamental decisions about the studies. Emil recognizes that such democratic procedures take time. In his view, the Ministry’s suggestion to limit the students’ power is an intent to gain more influence on each university’s agenda. “But what ensures a high quality in our education system has nothing to do with a political agenda. We need to ensure that nothing can just come from above and be implemented, but actually rely on a foundation of agreement between researchers and students”, Emil argues.

Resistance

It is for these reasons that the Studenterrådet has organized a manifestation on the 11th of April. About one hundred people have followed the call. Rakke Claussen, a student of economics, is one of them: “I am afraid that it is all going to be a big institution where the students have nothing to say”, she says. Toke Andersson, who studies history, has a similar opinion: “The students are the ones who know the courses best, therefore they should have a say.”

There were about a hundred people joining the protest (photo: Studenterrådet)

The recommendations have triggered students’ resistance not only in Aarhus but also in other parts of the country. In a demonstration in Copenhagen, students gathered in front of the Science Ministry with their mouths taped while holding banners protesting against the recommendation, according to the University Post.

So far, the commission (Universitetsudvalget) has merely given recommendations. It is not yet clear if the Minister for Education and Research, Søren Pind (Venstre) will follow up on all of them. The student representatives of Aarhus University are confident that they can avoid the reform which would deprive them of their decision-power.

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