Student - July 7, 2010

'We students have more power than we realize'

In the past year he has appeared in the current affairs programme NOVA, met the Queen and had questions asked in Parliament on his behalf, while his photo hung in the office of the Minister of Education. Last week, VHL student Henno van Horssen handed over the position of ISO chairman to the next incumbent.

Henno van Horssen explains something to Queen Beatrix during a meeting of the Education Council.
Conducting a debate with former minister Veerman in front of five hundred people? Henno van Horssen did that when he was the chairman of the Dutch National Students Association (ISO in Dutch). He wasn't even nervous.
'I feel perfectly at ease when I'm talking. That can be a pitfall; in the past year I've learnt always to keep my eye on the goal. It's all very well listing problems but what do you want to achieve? What do you want to have said?'
Getting things done is important to Van Horssen. He says about meeting Queen Beatrix: 'We talked about higher education. She is an incredibly friendly person and she seemed genuinely interested. She comes across as just a really nice grandmother. Of course, meeting someone like that is very special but that's not what gets you points as a student representative. What matters is getting real results.'
Van Horssen is particularly proud of the concessions the Ministry made on the second degree (see box). Furthermore, he saw the introduction of the public transport smart card and the basic grant put under threat; both affairs that ISO 'followed critically'. Van Horssen is convinced the new Cabinet will invest more money in quality in higher education. 'All the parties want that except for the CDA [Christian democrats]. The higher education sector needs to make sure it has a good plan ready to guide them in the right direction. The opportunities are there for the taking now.'

Clearer profile
ISO gave its support, along with student union LSVb, the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (HBO-raad) and the Association of Universities (VSNU), to the recommendations on higher education made by the Veerman committee.
 It said universities should adopt a clearer profile and specialize more. Van Horssen: 'At present you can study commercial economics at 23 different applied universities. The more students a degree programme can attract, the more money there is for the university. But quality isn't a function of quantity. You should set aside more money in the funding system for specialization and excellence.'
Van Horssen has not just learnt a lot in terms of content. 'How much you achieve depends to a large extent on your strategy. If you are to get your message across, it needs to fit in with the other person's story. It has to come from both sides. You shouldn't just make demands, you also need to show what students have to offer.'
People working for the Ministry, the HBO-raad or the VSNU have been doing that job for years, explains Van Horssen. 'Students can inject some energy in discussions by showing what life is really like for students and making the situation understandable. That role means we students have more power than we realize.'

Political animal
Staying true to yourself was perhaps the most important lesson he learnt in the past year, says Van Horssen. To begin with he looked up to the people he had to have meetings with. 'Then you start to understand how things work and you learn how to take advantage of that. And then you suddenly realize you are talking just like them.' The critical reaction of newspaper Trouw to an article he submitted served as a wake-up call. 'The editors said it had far too much emphasis on policy. Then I rewrote it, but this time from my personal point of view: Henno the student...'
When asked if he is a political animal, he says 'yes' without hesitation. Even so, Van Horssen doesn't see himself going into politics yet. 'Politics is very ephemeral and politicians don't get the chance to study the subject matter properly. I find lobbying more interesting because then you can concentrate on achieving long-term objectives.' He is particularly attracted by water management; three years ago he stood for election to the water board.
After the summer, Van Horssen wants to complete his degree in Land and Water Management at Velp. He still has some courses to complete and an internship to do. He doesn't know yet what he will do after graduation. Perhaps go on to university in Wageningen, or possibly London. They offer the Master's degree Water and Society. Two things guaranteed to get the former ISO chairman enthusiastic.

Box: Second degree
A change in legislation will give universities the freedom to make big increases in tuition fees for a second degree. In the future, students will have the right to the statutory tuition fees for one Bachelor's degree and one Master's degree. Henno van Horssen: 'We have managed to arrange it so that a second degree will still be affordable for students who have already begun on one during their first degree. We have also launched a website on this subject. Students can save thousands of euros if they're on the ball.' See www.tweedestudie.iso.nl (in Dutch).

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