Harry de Boer: ‘A university council can still wield quite a lot of power’

| Rense Kuipers

How has participation at universities evolved over the years? Harry de Boer, researcher in the BMS KiTeS department and at the CHEPS research institute, has spent years researching issues around management and governance at universities. This includes the topic of participation.

Harry de Boer.

De Boer explains that participation (medezeggenschap in Dutch) first emerged as a phenomenon in the 1970s. ‘Until the late 1960s, it was the professors who called all the shots at a university. Coinciding with the wave of equal opportunities and democratisation at that time, universities faced persistent demands for greater consultation and participation. Pressure from wider society led to the introduction of the University Governance Reform Act (Wet Universitaire Bestuurshervorming) in 1970, giving the wider university community its right to participate.’

Talks into the early hours

According to De Boer, this change to the law proved radical. ‘It meant that a university council set policy and an executive board became the implementing body. It had varying degrees of success. Some professors found the new setup difficult to swallow and these councils often included quite radical factions. Such was the power that they had over all kinds of issues that talks often lasted well into the early hours. The discussions could even cover such issues as sourcing coffee beans from Central America rather than from capitalist countries. The influence of participation really did reach that far in those days.’

‘It makes sense to organise participation at the lowest possible level within the organisation’

As a result of some minor legislative changes in the 1980s and 90s, the ‘power wielded by the participation bodies declined slightly’, explains De Boer. ‘That was until the introduction in the late 1990s of the MUB, the Modernisation of Universities’ Governance Act (Modernisering Universitaire Bestuursorganisatie). The result was an erosion of the function and power of university councils. But that did not mean that they lost all of their rights. A university council can still wield quite a lot of power. The right of approval that still exists for lots of topics actually amounts to a kind of right of veto.’

Changes to the law in 2010 and 2017 saw participation bodies given increased powers again. ‘That included greater involvement in the appointment of members of the supervisory board and additional powers for programme committees. I see the latter, in particular, as a positive development: it’s appropriate that people should have a say on what directly affects them: their study programme. It makes sense to organise participation at the lowest possible level within the organisation.’


De Boer has noted the emergence of some clear trends over the decades when it comes to participation. ‘Any change to the law always results in squabbles, before people get used to the new situation. But things always settle down over time. Whenever something new is attempted, there are clashes. But once the changes are in place, the participation bodies and the executive board eventually find a way forward.’

Formal powers have always existed – and De Boer is convinced that there is still a strong role for participation. ‘There’s often talk about those formal powers, but what’s more important is what happens in practice. There will always be hardliners who push things too far and there will always be executives who are less enamoured with fully-fledged participation. But it’s the relationship between a council and a board – one of mutual respect and understanding – that determines how effective participation ultimately is.’

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