New ombudsperson for students
Eugène van der Heijden has been the new ombudsman for students since last spring. Education and students have been the central theme of his entire career.
Van der Heijden inherited some 35 complaints from his predecessor, and these have been joined by more than 45 new ones since he took up the post in May. A few trends can be detected in the types of complaints received. The first is the guidance students receive in the various stages of their degree programme. ‘At times there can be a lot of friction between a lecturer and a student. Another trend is housing for international students. They don’t always end up where they thought or hoped that they would end up on the basis of the preference they indicated. A third trend is the way exams and term papers are evaluated.’ The ombudsman usually refers this sort of issue to the Board of Examiners. ‘After all, I don’t know anything about the course content, and these sorts of matters are outside my scope of authority.’
Dutch students and international students alike can take their complaints to the ombudsperson if they think they have been treated improperly by a staff member or by one of the university’s administrative bodies. A behaviour is improper if it is disrespectful, unfair, not according to the rules, or if it is in some other way unpleasant or detrimental to the student. The ombudsperson has an independent position and a duty of confidentiality.
‘I see it as my task to ensure that the student and his department can work together again,’ Van der Heijden commented. ‘The underlying problem with complaints is often the way information is conveyed.’ Van der Heijden continued: ‘For example, maybe something posted on the Internet isn’t completely clear, but alternatively it could be that the student has missed some information. The degree programme has a duty to inform, but the student also has a duty to stay informed. Sometimes the paradox is that the department’s desire to provide complete information can lead to incompleteness, such as that one particular exception that was omitted in this instance.'
Van der Heijden considers education, in which young people develop as a result of their own curiosity, to be an enjoyable ‘universe’. ‘And students find themselves at an interesting stage in their lives. They are expected to function independently, but at some point they still need good advice and proper guidance. Leiden University, with its faculties and degree programmes, and with Plexus, provides a lot of that.
Aside from a number of years when he worked in the field of labour conflict mediation, van der Heijden has spent his entire career at educational institutions and education-oriented organisations. He has held a variety of different positions at TU Delft, ranging from project, contract and line manager to dean of students and student adviser. Even back in the early 90s, the universities in Leiden, Rotterdam and Delft were collaborating and had joint trainees, one of whom was Van der Heijden. He also worked for the sciences platform, which strives to make science education more attractive at secondary schools and pre-university institutions, as well as for the NOB foundation, which supports secondary education in Dutch at international schools abroad. In the early 90s, van der Heijden even had a stint at Leiden University, as home–work traffic project leader in Human Resources Management, known then as ‘Personnel Affairs’. So he is back for a second time after a long absence.
Van der Heijden is active on LinkedIn, but due to his new position he has agreed to hold back on his activity there for the duration of his tenure as ombudsman, for the sake of his neutrality and independence.
(15 September 2015/CH )