News - September 1, 2011

'You step into a whole new world'

Three Wageningen students are in key posts this year in national student organizations. Pascal ten Have (LSVb), Minke Remmerswaal (ISO) and Antoon Kanis (LKvV) are joining forces to oppose the plans of student enemy number one: Halbe Zijlstra. They talk here about what makes them tick, about 'stupid policies' and about sleepless nights. 'We provide so much good input. Why is so little done with it?'' By Nicolette Meerstadt and Linda van der Nat.

Wageningen has never been so heavily represented in national student politics before. Pascal ten Have is Wageningen's first ever chair of the LSVB, for a start. But previous Wageningen input into the ISO and the LKvV has been limited, too. The new student leaders are in for a bumpy ride, as they face the task of limiting the damage that budget cuts will unavoidably cause among students. And one of the implications if this is that they will have get together with state secretary Halbe Zijlstra on a regular basis.
What is that big baddy Halbe Zijlstra like, in reality?
Pascal: 'He is a man with a mission. As soon as he came into our office he wrote on the wall, 'Halbe was here'. A secretary of state who walks into a building and starts writing on the walls! He is a pleasant enough man, but he is implementing an unpleasant policy: a big clean-up. And the more opposition he meets with, the more determined Halbe gets.'
Minke: 'There is your professional life and your private life. It's good to keep them separate. Politicians are only human.'  
Pascal: 'He is a nice man to disagree with, but we always stay in dialogue and at a personal level it is quite fun of course.'
So the drinks after the meetings are always enjoyable?
Minke: 'Yes.'
How does the discussion go?
Pascal: ┬┤Zijlstra has a political task and he chooses to take a clear, hard line. It is difficult to get anywhere with him in terms of students' interests. For example, we are trying to get exemptions made for students with special needs, but then he says, 'the state isn't there to be fair.' End of discussion. Shame about your exceptional circumstances, you can go and get stuffed, I'm not going to look after you.'
So how do you try to achieve your goal?
Pascal: 'Well, not through him anyway.'
Minke: 'You can also go through MPs, people at the ministry and at the VSNU or the HBO Council.'
Antoon: 'For instance, Anne-Wil Lucas (VVD spokesperson for education, ed.) is keener than Zijlstra is on student office-bearers not paying tuition fees. She has proposed that student office-bearers should not have to pay tuition fees during their year of office.'
Pascal: 'Then you the party line goes into action: if she takes that position and Halbe Zijlstra gives it the nod, the rest will vote for it too.' 
Is that all part of lobbying? Looking for the weakest link in the system?
Pascal:  'Talking about your lobby strategy in an interview??'
Aren't you allowed to say anything about it?
Pascal: 'Allowed, allowed. Maybe I don't want to myself. I don't think it's a good idea to broadcast it far and wide.'
What else did you learn from your media course?
Pascal: 'Only to say things you are sure of, that was the main one.'
Minke: 'In principle it is the chair who talks to the press. But sometimes we let the person who knows the most about the subject deal with it.'
Antoon: 'We haven't had a media course yet, but I do know that, even if the tape recorder is off, a journalist is still a journalist.'
Minke: 'Yes, you often give away the most in the ten minutes you spend tidying up.'
What instruments do you have at your disposal, apart from lobbying and discussion?
Pascal: '650,000 students, as well as secondary school students and their parents. We are doing this precisely for the generation that is still in secondary school.'
Why have you opted for the ISO, the LKvV or the LSVB rather than for their competitors?
Minke: 'The ISO is pragmatic and always keeps on negotiating. I am not the activist type, and the ISO favours maintaining contacts in the ministry. We make the most of a situation, even if it's not what we initially wanted.'
Antoon: 'In the past three years, alongside my studies, I have been very involved in student society life and at the LKvV I can put that in a broader context. In Wageningen there are three 'big' societies with 600 members at the most. The Amsterdam Student Corps has 3,500 members. So there are differences as well as similarities. It is nice to see what the issues are for all those different boards.'
Pascal: 'It does make a difference what your starting point is. When I was organizing campaigns for the SOS Committee, the LSVb was always present and the ISO wasn't. So I had more contact with that group. I also shared a house with eight ex-WSO board members. So to some extent I was 'brought up' by my housemates.
Do you feel that you have a background in common as Wageningers?
Antoon: 'It is really nice that there are suddenly three people from Wageningen on national boards.'
Minke: 'I was at the ministry of OC&W a couple of weeks ago and people there said. 'Oh, Wageningen... Yes, they are always involved in everything. Always!''
Pascal: 'You have something in common which makes it easier to connect. The rest of them are such a Utrecht clique.'
Minke: 'During the application procedure all the student towns were represented, but the appointments committee said they did not want to compromise quality.'
Antoon: 'We have someone from Tilburg and someone from Rotterdam as well.'
How do you work together?
Minke:  'We have our differences, but we do pass quite a bit on to each other. We sometimes get calls about housing and then we refer people to the LSVb, because they are more active on that front.'
Pascal: 'You can reinforce each other or totally undermine each other, and we go for the first option.'
Minke: 'You can compete until you wipe each other out, but that is just stupid. There is enough work for 15 office-bearers. For instance, all three organizations are going to take the government to court to try to get the Halbe fine on extended studying withdrawn.
This is the year in which you can make a difference. Does that ever give you sleepless nights?
Minke (with a laugh): 'Well, we could use a bit more sleep!
Pascal: 'You constantly ask yourself: guys, why is this awful policy being introduced?  We provide so much good input; why is so little done with it? But that only increases my motivation.'
Is the Halbe fine going to put a stop to student life as we know it?
Antoon: 'I think students won't be beaten so easily. But I am curious to see whether the student societies will recruit fewer members this year, and whether first years are afraid to join up. Whereas student society life has so much to offer. I am doing Economics and Policy, but at the bar I often get chatting to someone who does, say, Molecular Sciences. And that person might have a totally different perspective on a given topic.'
Pascal: 'And there are lots of other worthwhile clubs too, such as study associations. Like the group at LA13, inspringtheater  ('jump-in theatre', an interactive theatre group, ed.), or the Rural Wageningen Foundation. I am afraid that these will be the first casualties.'
Minke: 'You shouldn't forget that the business world really asks for people who have done things besides their studies. Doing a second degree course is going to be super-expensive, but at the same time the ministry expects its trainees to have two Master's degrees. Surely that is utterly hypocritical?!'
But you can get a loan. Is it really so terrible to get into debt for your studies?
Pascal: 'Well, you just try to buy a house when they see that you still have a debt of 50,000 euros. That gets counted more and more often.'
Antoon: 'The question is whether you want a mortgage when you already have such a big debt.'
Pascal: 'And it can influence your choice of profession. Are you going to go into secondary school teaching or will you try to get into the Rabobank?'
Minke: 'It is so easy to get a loan, but students cannot see now what the consequences will be in 20 years' time. It is as though they are tugging at us from all sides, and that makes for a tight corset.'
Isn't your knowledge of your subject more important that what you learn outside your studies?
Pascal: 'But the two are so beautifully complementary, aren't they? If you graduate after exactly five years, you have never organized anything and you don't know how meetings work. Yeah, best of luck in your first job.'
But you can learn those things in your first job, surely?
Antoon: 'In your first job you get new kinds of responsibility. Your creativity is limited because you have to work within a company strategy. It could take 15 years before you are allowed to contribute your thoughts on it. Now we represent thousands of people. Before you get another chance to do that, you'll have to be an MP.'
Minke: 'During your studies you are still very flexible. If you realize that you enjoy something very much, you can adjust your course choices accordingly. In my Master's I can make use of what I am now learning at ISO.'
Pascal: 'It is very important that you learn that between the ages of 16 and 25, so that it really becomes part of you. If you do it much later, it is just a ploy.'
In the media, students are increasingly described as spoiled children who avoid their responsibilities for years.
Pascal: 'Well, that free and easy aspect is exactly what has gone. I think there are few groups that work as hard as students. They have to pass their courses, hold down a job on the side, do voluntary work. So yes, I am actually rather proud of the average student.'
Minke: 'Students who do their very best get noticed less, unfortunately, but that doesn't mean there aren't any.'
Antoon: 'Students who stand out from the crowd, who want to do a second Master's or spend a year doing board work: those are the future leaders in the Netherlands. It is strange that those things are being discouraged.'
Are you really doing this year in office out of interest, or more for your network?
Pascal: 'My standpoint is very practical: I want to stop this stupid policy.'
But it doesn't affect you.
Pascal: 'No, but it is a stupid policy. And not everything you do should be for yourself.'  
Minke: 'I like the combination of the content and the networking. I wanted to have subject-based portfolios because I find the work very interesting.'
Antoon: 'You step into a whole new world and get new experiences. That is my motive, not the network.'
What do you want to achieve this year?
Pascal: 'The ideal scenario would be that student grants remain and the public transport student card too. What I would feel bad about is if people in difficult circumstance become victims of the Halbe fine. The state is there to be fair, to protect the weak and to make sure everyone can take up the opportunities they get. You could see that as very left-wing, but you could also see it as right-wing.'
Antoon: 'It really is very exciting this year because we are taking out legal action against the state. I hope we'll soon be able to say, 'Thanks to us there are still student grants', and 'thanks to us, you don't have to pay that fine''.'
The big three national student organizations
The Intercity Student Council (ISO) is an umbrella organization of local student representatives on advisory councils. The ISO describes itself as having the interests of all students at universities and applied sciences institutions at heart. The organization was set up in 1973 by students from university councils at several institutions.
The National Student Union (LSVb) is a federation of local student unions which defends the interests of students at national level. The union does this is by engaging in dialogue with national government and interest groups, as well as by supporting local union branches.
The National Chamber of Associations (LKvV) is the umbrella organization for 46 social student societies in the Netherlands, so it represents 40,000 students. The main aim of the LKvV is to uphold the rights of the member associations and the twelve affiliated Local Chambers of Associations (PKvVs).

Name: Pascal ten Have (24)
Post: Chair of National Student Union (LSVb)
Programme: Forest and Nature Policy
Experience: Study Association Sylvatica, WSO, programme committee BNB, SOS Committee (an activist platform in the LSVb)
Name: Minke Remmerswaal (21)
Post: Treasurer of the Intercity Student Council (ISO)
Programme: Health and Society
Experience: assistant to the student counsellor and the programme director
Name: Antoon Kanis (21)
Post: Assessor, National Chamber of Associations (LKvV)
Programme: Economics and Policy
Experience: SSR-W, KLV student ambassador