As chair of the Dutch National Students' Union LSVb, Pascal ten Have has spent the last year defending the interests of well over half a million students. He led demonstrations, negotiated with politicians and worked such long hours that he forgot to eat. He looks back on a year that has given him some revealing insights into what goes on behind the scenes. 'I am an anti-fan of the game of politics.'
'Certainly. At the start, especially, everything is new and very nerve-wracking. The first time that I was on the eight o'clock news, or live on radio - you never forget those moments. At the opening of the academic year there I was suddenly, standing between Arnoud Boot and Arnold Heertje chatting about the economic value of nature. I am a fan of Heertje's and I had already invited him to speak at the Studium Generale a couple of times, but it was too expensive. No I stood there and thought: what a unique experience this is.'
Did you find your role easy?
'You learn as you go along. At the start I sometimes got angry about certain things. For example, I had a debate with Bernard Wientjes, who only talks about young people from the point of view of economic efficiency. I got so cross about that, that I could no longer find the words to express myself. I wanted to respond but I just started to stammer. Then I really had to sit down for a moment and drink a glass of water. I realized that it is better to step back a bit; then you come across much more strongly. That got easier as time went on, once I had more experience, gained some skills and got to know the content of dossiers.'
Did it live up to your expectations?
'Not entirely. I expected a very different kind of game, much tougher politics with much more campaigning. We did organize quite a few demonstrations: we had a couple of thousand people out in Amsterdam, about 1500 in Nijmegen, and a demo on bikes that was followed live on radio the whole day. But it was still a big contrast with the year before when there were 15,000 students out on the Malieveld in The Hague. Students don't really understand what's going in and with this cabinet they don't feel they are listened to at all. That makes it very difficult to goad them into action. I do think it's a pity that students have let that go. But then you can't whip up public indignation just like that.'
Can you achieve much if your rank and file are so apathetic?
'Yes, but you have to go about it differently. The room for manoeuvre this year was in politics. I have noticed that if you know your facts, you can achieve a lot more by drawing attention to them than you can with hard-line activism. That may be less in line with the nature of this organization, which has always been a left-wing bastion. But in the end it's the students that matter. We had to choose the most effective approach. And that was lobbying.'
How do you lobby, actually?
'The tension ran highest in the periods around the budget and the negotiations in the Catshuis, for example. We set ourselves the challenge of being the first interest group to respond to the failure of the Catshuis negotiations, and to talk to politicians and the press directly. That was a game changer: you cross out everything you've done up to then and start again from scratch. That was hard for a lot of organizations to get used to.'
Not for the LSVb?
'You have to think and act fast. That Saturday we decided: let's go for D66, GroenLinks [green left] and ChristenUnie [Christian Union], and start talking to them. It was a gamble, but it paid off in the end. Of course you don't know whether they really listened to us. But there's a remarkable amount of what we came up with in the 'Spring agreement' and in the budget for 2013-2014.'
Is it a busy job, being chair of the country's biggest students' union?
'It has been extremely hectic. At the start I spent my Saturdays knocked out on the sofa. After a 68-hour week you have to make sure you get some sleep. We worked on through the Christmas holiday because politicians wanted to scrap student grants for Bachelor's degrees then. After that, two board members stepped down because of the work pressure. With just three of us on the board it got really tough. With three board members you just cannot do the lobbying and the campaigning and the press relations. I was so busy that I simply forgot to eat. If you do too much that is the first thing to go. At some point I lost eight kilos. So much that you think, time for a big breakfast with sausages, eggs and baked beans. Things got better in the spring and I've spent most of the last five or six weeks handing over.'
It sounds pretty tough.
'Yes, it was. During a year like that you do everything quickly; you don't have much time for things. And because of that, your attention span gets steadily shorter. I used to be able to sit still for three hours, easily, but now I notice I keep getting restless. What I most look forward to, soon, is calming down.'
You will graduate soon. Will we be seeing you in one of the political parties after that?
'After my experiences this year, I would rather work for an NGO than for a political party. I might go into parliament when I'm 50. And that is quite a different choice from what the average LSVb board member would go for, as most of them study public administration. I am an anti-fan of the politics game as it is played now. It's all about fame, making a name for yourself, and fast results. No one thinks about the long term.'
Do you have any tips for Wageningen students?
'I would say to first and second years: don't let yourself be driven crazy by rules decided in The Hague. Choose the degree subject that suits you best and ignore that efficiency thinking that is being pushed by the government. And do not be put off working for a year for a student organization, getting some experience abroad or doing extra modules for your degree. It is better to be a good student than a fast student. The worst thing this government could do to you is to cause you to graduate without having learnt as much as you could have done.'
Anne-Wil Lucas, VVD party MP
‘I got to know Pascal as a committed and fanatical union man. We met often and once it led to a confrontation. Luckily we had a good talk about that afterwards. To me it's a pity Pascal so often presents students as victims, whereas I see students as clever young people who have a bright future ahead of them. We shall continue to differ on that point.'
Sebastiaan Hameleers, chair of student organization ISO
‘Pascal is a relaxed guy, but he's very driven too. In debates he can be incredibly fierce towards his opponents. I heard, for instance, that he once made Anne-Wil Lucas cry. I have told him that it's not always a good idea to wind up your opponents in a debate. After all, afterwards you have to sit at the same table with them again. He replied that the story had to be told and that if politicians can't handle it, that's their problem.'
Jelmer de Ronde, deputy chair LSVb
‘Pascal is genuinely concerned about the plight of students. He can get very emotional when students are the victims of government policy. He knows his stuff and he is a fast thinker, which means he can switch between subjects fast. Pascal is quick to see the consequences of policies, so he forms his opinion quickly. And he is sometimes late. But whether that's Pascal's fault or the national railway's, I am not quite sure.'