Student activism and student self-government took centre stage at Technische Hogeschool Twente (‘Twente Technical College’, THT) right from the start. The new college was set up to produce homo universalis, something the Netherlands was more than ready for.
Students were encouraged to gain experience in governance during their studies, and to take an active part in the goings-on at the university and on campus. Student activism was even recognized as an ‘essential prerequisite to improving academic studies’. Students at THT had to be able to do more than just solve technological problems; at Twente, simply passing your modules and writing a dissertation was not enough. This philosophy meant that every engineer educated in Twente had sat on at least one governing board and knew what it was like to defend and support a proposal and to perform well in the face of a critical committee.
As soon as the college was founded, questions naturally arose about how students’ democratic governing powers would work out in practice. If the college administrators had any say in the matter, their influence would be pretty limited. The administrators took the reins firmly into their own hands, appointing a Senate of lecturers, a Campus Council of students and staff, and Jan Schuijer as Campus Dean. Not to be subdued, the students set up their own body, separate from the Campus Council: the Studentenraad Drienerlo (‘Drienerlo Student Council’, SRD).
Although the SRD was created to promote student representation on the Executive Board of the college and the Campus Council focused on the separate area of campus management, there was a certain amount of friction between the two bodies. The situation became even more complicated with the founding of the Algemene Studenten Vergadering Drienerlo (‘Drienerlo General Student Association’, ASVD), which also had the stated aim of representing students. In an effort to ensure that things would continue to run smoothly with all these different management bodies, the board of the college created yet another one: Parlement Drienerlo, composed solely of students. The Campus Dean had his hands full making sure nothing went wrong with all this student self-government!
But it was not only student councils that were being set up. The students’ relative isolation on the campus university in the 1960s also led to the founding of the first study associations. On 29 March 1965, the Chemo en Technisch Studenten Genootschap (study association for Chemical Engineering) was set up, with the name changing two years later to Chemotechnisch Studentengenootschap Alembic (Chemo-Technical Student Society Alembic). Later that same year, on 9 September 1975, two other study associations followed suit: W.S.G. Isaac Newton and E.T.S.V. Scintilla. These study associations sold books and readers and organized excursions for their members, but they also had a less serious side: Alembic, Newton en Scintilla joined forces to organize huge, unforgettable house parties – the on-campus version of going clubbing.
Active students are still the driving force on campus to this day. That said, student self-government has always been under pressure and has regularly had to defend its freedom. You can see that in a 12 March 1997 article in UT Nieuws headlined ‘Een mooie bloem heeft water nodig’ (‘A beautiful flower needs water’). According to the article, ‘What began so beautifully 33 years ago is [in peril of] sinking under the strict study regime of the progress-related grant and Minister Ritzen’s cuts to financial assistance for students’, and ‘students today [have] no time or money left for extra-curricular activities’. One in three students had to get a job so they could eat and pay the rent, according to the article, and study associations were finding it difficult to attract new students.
Fast forward to today, and you can see that not a lot has changed since 1997: there’s still an ongoing debate about the effect the relatively new Twente Education Model (TEM) has had on student activism. Proponents claim TEM ensures stability, but because it leaves less room for independent study the curriculum is already ‘jam-packed’. What’s more, the student progress evaluation puts a lot of pressure on first-years to achieve all the points they need to progress to the second year. Some say that this detracts from students’ free time, and thereby also from their activism. When TEM was introduced, rector magnificus Ed Brinksma suggested that although activism is important, maybe it shouldn’t be something students do in their first year.
Fortunately we can see that student activism has not been crushed under top-down educational models and requirements: that beautiful flower might sometimes get a bit thirsty, but it’s still very much alive. Every successive generation of students do their utmost best to keep the flower in bloom and to gain experience on committees and governing bodies. That may not produce homo universalis in the strictest sense, but the experience students gain is invaluable once they graduate and go out into the world.