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The Maastricht Diplomat

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In Requiem of Student Politics - A Case Against NovUM

Updated: Apr 22

Disclaimer: The individuals interviewed and quoted for this article are not speaking on behalf of Maastricht University, in particular not for the University or Faculty Councils, but are stating their own views. The author has worked alongside sitting University Council member Krithik Rock of KAN Party on the board of UNSA in the academic year 2023/24 - this relationship has not influenced the writing of this article nor this investigation as a whole. The Maastricht Diplomat and its writers operate independently under the umbrella of the United Nations Student Association.

Once again, the time has come when Maastricht University attempts to care about the lawfully enshrined rights of representation students enjoy. For the University Council these rights are threefold: the right to advice, consent and to be informed. And before I digress into the bureaucratic particulars of what that means let me be clear: this article is not here to serve as another well-meant but ultimately unused tool to get students to vote, but rather the result of a three-year-long investigation into election fraud by NovUM and DOPE and the lack of actions by Maastricht University.

By law, the full text of which is only available in Dutch by the way, and in practice University Council members are empowered to decide over most aspects that directly impact our life here at UM. They approve the Student Charter, policy and rules of financial assistance to students, the terms and conditions of employment, as well as the annual budget for the entire university. They have the right to prior consultation on the level of tuition fees and limitation of enrollment and are thus enabled to make crucial decisions over our everyday lifes.

This story starts in 2022, when after yet another year of giving little to no visibility to the University and Faculty Councils from UM itself, the election office sent out an email on March 28 informing the entire student body that any student could become a candidate for University and Faculty Councils for the upcoming academic year.

And here is where we encounter the first issue with Maastricht’s current culture of student politics: list pushers and buying votes.

Irrespective of whether you will remain a student at our university for the term the upcoming representatives are elected, for as long as you were enrolled during the recruitment period, you were able to put yourself forward as a candidate as per the statutes. Quintessentially, list pushers are students currently enrolled who will be unable to serve their term, for example, as they will be graduating at the end of this very academic year. These can be used to gain votes as these people are either already known among those voting - for instance those currently in any of the councils - or simply as the individual voter is more inclined to vote for a friend of a friend over a stranger.

Undoubtedly, exploiting this gap in the current election system is strategic genius for all parties, however, should we as a student body really be able to place our vote for representatives who will no longer be a part of our collective student body?

Back in 2022, I thought that the biggest issues to be uncovered was that DOPE notoriously prided themselves on having the biggest student mandate (those were the days), and ultimately did little to no work once elected. At the time, it was treated as an open secret amongst (now former) councilors that DOPE would use their connections through fraternities and sororities as well as purchase beer and/or ice cream in exchange for a vote. These incentives were and still are against the rules, however, the main issue with DOPE was not the methods they used to gain a seat, but their actual work once they had been elected. Former two-term University Councilor Freddy Leppert commented that “the problem is not with the university council itself, it is with the motivation of individual councilors''. When student representatives treat elections as a popularity contest with no substantiated programme to build upon but to be bought with beer crates and ice cream, it comes as no surprise that their work during their elected term leaves much to be desired. Another Councilor is not only displeased with the lack of follow-through from fellow elected representatives, but also stressed that this is a position paid by the University, salaries depending on position between 527,15€ to 777€ paid each month, and that there has been a noticeable discrepancy of the workload each councilor puts in. Student councilors must fulfill an attendance quota, however, their actual work is not monitored, yet always compensated. In the words of Freddy,  “it is very possible to achieve a lot if you put the work in '' and if you have been elected, you should honor the position your fellow students have given you to represent us as best as possible.

And let us not forget one of the most quintessential issues of the councils: visibility – or lack thereof.

Granted, now during the elections, you will spot some form of advertisement for the current candidates and their parties – be that in the form of private messages, parties and candidates' Instagram accounts, or even our own Maastricht Diplomat. However, already this visibility is limited when pertaining to the institution that is Maastricht University and the body responsible for the elections. Since November 2022, there has been an attempt to increase visibility through an Instagram account. To date, this account has a grand total of 13 posts and 243 followers that mostly have been or are involved in student politics - I think it is fair to consider this a failed attempt. The perhaps unsung hero in this chapter of our story is Teun Dekker, who since his appointment as chair, has taken it upon himself to update us all on the University Council and its three committees through a blog semi-regularly published on the university website. I commend Teun for his efforts, but given the highly uninterested populous, at least on the student side, I am almost certain that the reach of these posts leaves room for improvement.

During the pandemic, the Maastricht Diplomat began organizing the Great Student Debate, for which we invited a candidate from each party, and offered them an opportunity to promote themselves and the elections as a whole. 

Whereas the announcement of the first ever student election debate was two days prior on the UM’s official Instagram account and further linked back to the UNSA and Maastricht Diplomat account for more information, in 2022 we could not make use of the tens of thousands of followers the university enjoys prior to the debate. Instead, the link to the full stream – now obviously without the opportunity to make student concerns directly heard and answered by candidates – was posted two full days after the debate on their Facebook page, which not only has vastly less engagement but linked only back to the University’s own YouTube page and the Observant’s election run down. Following a conversation through direct messages with the Social Media Team, the Diplomat was informed that the debate announcement was in fact posted to UM’s official Instagram but was removed due to the low engagement garnered. 

This continuous lack of effort by the University to publicize student politics is to blame for the lackluster turnout of (at its height) 30 live viewers, ten of which were staffers monitoring and sharing live updates, the most vocal third belonging to the represented KAN party as reflected in the comment section.

Throughout my personal involvement in last year’s debate it became apparent to me that the social media team and Studio MBB through no fault of their own have not grasped the functioning of the university council. When tasked with making street interviews and background research, the producer stressed numerous times how boring the debate in the previous year was - itching to create tension between candidates. It dawned on me that the vision on the production side was Trump vs Hillary style debate when really, most party programs overlap: the university should be more sustainable, students need more and cheaper housing, education should be accessible and fair to all, and a rough plan on how to handle the internationalization debate. And this only makes sense, as the candidates voted in will have to collaborate to represent the entire student body in the university council, but it seemed my attempts at explanation fell on deaf ears.

The issues don’t end here, there were logistical mishaps and difficulties seemingly at every step of the way. In 2021, Candidates described the shooting of promotional videos as an afterthought, with constant rescheduling, instruction changes and late publication, whilst 2022 according to organizers and the lack of content, the organization of such videos completely fell through. Physical campaigning is another can of worms I barely opened, and yet members of various parties told me that they could not reach the relevant facility managers, they were denied access to campaign so the ground would “stay neutral” whilst another party was present and actively campaigning. A member of the former USM party informed me about numerous issues with the election website, a first time contender shared that they had received no aid whatsoever for navigating the backend of the election website. The university council website has been out of date for years, linking to student parties that have long ceased to exist. How can we expect engaged students to maintain being involved without such support?

As of 20. April 2024 the main university website remains out of date, not listing KAN party. SHAPE announced the party would no longer exist August 2022, making the website almost two years out of date.

And now that the groundwork has been laid and the conditions for an uninformed and easily manipulated voter base, of which only about 20% will actually cast a vote, enter: NovUM.

NovUM has been around since at least the academic year of 2013/14 but the party would not be the party it is today without the presidency and involvement of one Charles De Groot. A natural-born politician, and now founder of his own political party in his home country of Belgium, it is under his leadership and council membership that NovUM began to rise through the ranks and whilst other parties died out or were swallowed, NovUM can pride themselves currently on having 5 seats, and thus a student majority, in the council. I personally attribute this success to Charles’ almost relentless drive especially in times of campaigning, since his presidency NovUM was not just any other student party in a sea of many but they were here to stay - and most importantly win. It seemed that no matter where you looked, or at which faculty you studied, Charles was there, hanging up posters of himself, talking to the masses about his great political success of getting microwaves to the library and learning spaces or infiltrating any group chat from Law to MSP to get your vote.

Now, he may sound like and perhaps even be a perfect candidate, but the moment you dig a little deeper rumor has it that his efforts in campaigning and both his council work as well as his presidency are quite a different story. Accounts of various student representatives agree with my observation, depicting him as a politician of grand gestures and little regard for the actual work once elected, or even presenting cross-party or another group efforts as his (or NovUM’s) sole achievement. Whilst I do not agree with all of his tactics, or even think that they are lawful at times, I must admit this: it works.

Presumably, our university elections have a code of conduct that all candidates and their parties should follow and also employ for their debate on the basis of fair and democratic principles, right?

(Mostly) wrong. Last year, all candidates received a booklet including “top tips” from the election office, which equated to a do’s and don’t list. Among others, a “don’t” advised candidates to not campaign in WhatsApp groups that had not been created specifically for campaigning. Now, this “don’t” is actually far more serious than just a helpful tip but finds its basis in data protection law, as the phone numbers were not collected for the purpose of campaigning. But what is the GDPR to someone trying to win as many seats as possible for their party, right Charles? Perhaps this particular strategy was borrowed from the previously largest party DOPE, as they have been known to employ similar tactics.

Charles, a former Europan Studies student, seen here joining the Maastricht Science Programme GroupChat in 2023.

For reference: screenshots of messages that various student received and sent to the Maastricht Diplomat in 2023, these were forwarded to the Election Office at Maastricht University.

Whilst I could spend more time on the muddied information flows around rules and regulation, instead of clear cut communication with all candidates and parties equitably, let us address the incident brought forward by KAN Party: the student debate being staffed and controlled by members of NovUM

Last year, the Maastricht Diplomat was still involved in the organization and content of the student debate and thus, I myself go to be an eyewitness to the blatant election fraud committed by NovUM.

Now, already in the preparation of the debate, I was made aware that Amien - then NovUM’s No. 1 Candidate for the University Council - was heavily involved in the content of the debate. The producer justified this by arguing that help was needed and it was Amien and NovUM that came to the rescue. Whilst I am unclear on the specific communication between NovUM and the producer, or the results thereof, this is not the incident in question. 

For those unfamiliar, the debate is filmed in the UM’s own MBB studio, edited and broadcasted right before elections commence. To do so, the candidates and a moderator are in the studio, whilst the producer and a select few are in the control room. One person in the control room is able to directly guide the moderator by giving instructions, questions and giving background information on who to address the question to. When I first arrived at the control room from the recording studio, I was greeted by Rose Cooper, NovUM President in the year 2022/23. After I had a short discussion with the producer, Rose was asked to leave the room as having the current president of one of the political parties in the running was a clear breach of an unbiased and fair debate. 

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the person next to me in the control room wearing the headset was Alexander Lemberg, last year’s No. 1 and this year’s No. 3 NovUM candidate for the FPN faculty council. It was a candidate with a party affiliation that got to decide who got to speak, who instructed the moderator when to cut off another party, that fact-checked seemingly everyone but NovUM. 

Alexander Lemberg and me, pictured here in the control room during the recording of the 2023 Student Election Debate. As you can see, he is the only one with a headset, giving instructions to the moderator.

For reference: screenshots of Alexander Lemberg's candidacy in 2023 and 2024, as well as screenshots of the debate to verify on the screen that the photo in question is in fact taken in the control room of the 2023 debate.

After the debate had already been filmed, I was reading through all candidates for each faculty council as the MD was once again producing a rundown for each faculty and stumbled upon the familiar face. I informed the Election Office of Alexander’s presence and role at the recording and suggested a vetting process for the involvement of students next year - they let me know that they can understand my frustration and thanked me for informing them. 

I can understand that it is difficult to police the multiple hundreds, if not thousands of private group chats candidates use in violation of GDPR and guidelines to campaign for one’s party but was certain that such egregious conduct would result in any sort of consequence, especially for the next debate. But then again, it was NovUM Faculty Councilor Dylan Seijmonsbergen that agreed upon the rules and guidelines of the physical campaigning with the facility manager at FASoS only for his co-candidates to break them.

From left to right: Email agreeing on Campaigning Rules at FASoS sent by Dylan Seijmonsbergen. Dylan pictured on his political Instagram, announcing his faculty council seat with NovUM. NovUM members campaign outside off the agreed upon grounds (see Email). UM Council Candidate Niklas Erkes (Screenshot of Campaign 2022) pictured in violation of campaign guidelines by taking a student's phone to vote - this conduct was verified by multiple students in his tutorials.

NovUM gained 5 seats in last year’s election, which by their standards mean that they “won, btw”, and no further action was taken. And as I was able to verify through multiple eye witness accounts that the exact same violation was committed by Alexander Lemberg on behalf of NovUM again this year.

To me personally, it comes to no surprise that a party using NovUM’s dirty tactics was so successful in last year’s election. Our student body is not invested enough, the people responsible for the production do not know or care enough to vet their candidates, there seems to be no controlling or enforcement of the guidelines that aren’t even hard rules, and for the average student the university council is an invisible force that only exists when NovUM reminds every single one of your group chats that it’s time to vote. So as Brendan and Peter so skillfully stated after the 2022 elections:  “Maybe next year, try to do something about it!


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