- Paula Cepeda Gallo
The Backbone of the United Students of Maastricht: In Dialogue with the Party’s Founder.
As Maastricht University boasts a reputation as the most international university in the Netherlands, it is interesting to note that until Mortiz Takacs founded the USM, just two years ago, the representative councils had no sitting international students – who make up 53% of the student body. “We always say we are the most international university. But when we look deeper into the representative bodies there are less and less international students,” Takacs says.
Students should be asking themselves how they can maximize their experience at UM. For Takacs “that includes many factors. It includes asking: How well are the faculties managed? How well are the university staff dealing with well-being? How well is my education and curriculum?” It also includes being curious about how interests that extend outside of the university, like housing and finance, are being taken care of, he says. He notes that student politics matter when you ask the simple question: “who is looking out for my interests and representing me?”
Commenting on the inception of the party, Takacs recounts how the idea emerged over a conversation in his kitchen with his roommate. They were inspired by a drive to improve university life. Looking back, he reflects on how the parties running at the time were primarily composed of Dutch students. The lack of international representation was glaring.
The party started out with six members and with no recognition. They found themselves campaigning against well-established parties who had existing infrastructure and funding, he recalls. Looking back at their “zero-euro” campaign, Takacs comments that “it was quite tricky to do at the beginning, obviously with no campaign money, with no legal foundation behind us.” In its first year, the party won one seat. In its second year running, USM had grown to 20 members and wound up winning seven seats in the councils, ranking them top four among the largest sitting parties.
As the only international student on his council, he comments on the experience of being the sole foreigner among five Dutch members. “I was super close with them, it was super inclusive, they integrated me.” His ascension to the council brought what would be the first of many changes. The first of these changes was having to shift from Dutch, which was the council’s default language at the time, to English. “We came to the council and said, ‘hey guys, we are trying to learn Dutch, but please help us, speak English!’” Takacs sees a need to acknowledge both the hospitality Dutch students have demonstrated for the international population, and the necessity of compromise. He remarks that the switch to English has made the experience on the councils more inclusive. As self-evident as this shift might appear with the emergence of a new political party, it does drive home the homogeneity of the council at the time.
In a setting where “internationalism” permeates rhetoric, Takacs reflects on USM’s innovative approach to the notion of internationalization. “Obviously, ‘internationalization’ is a broad term, it sounds very superficial to a lot of people,” he says. Takacs describes the party’s projects as a very deliberate implementation of what the word denotes. “It’s more about saying: ‘hey there is a person from Spain who has a big problem getting their high school diploma accepted at Maastricht University, how can we help him figure that out?’” He says that the party strives to help students overcome bureaucratic barriers and national requirements that are part and parcel of moving to another country. Takacs makes it clear that whether it concerns issues or uncertainties about housing, visas, or work-permits, their focus is on finding pragmatic solutions for practical problems.
Another source of inspiration for launching projects comes from alumni. Takacs shares that USM’s connections with alumni has given them valuable perspective. Graduates have disclosed that, while they value their degrees, stepping into the work world has made them realize that they could have benefited from more interdisciplinary options in their training. The solution USM is advancing: a wider array of inter-faculty double degrees or a more flexible credit-based system for architecting powerful degrees. According to Takacs, one of USM’s breakthrough initiatives in this area, last year, was the creation of a course called “Business Dutch,” where SBE students have the opportunity to learn Dutch in the business context. The current party representatives are pushing for it in the council. “We need people who learn different languages,” he says. “It’s important that the university provides these for free.” By putting a focus on innovative curriculum changes, Takacs aims to improve employability in the future.
For those who question the treacle-like pace inherent to any administrative body, Takacs offers some insights. Being on the University Council, he shares, entails a heavy workload for the sitting representatives. While they still are managing to “bring a lot of progress to the table for students,” he does acknowledge the intricate organization of councils means that there are varying degrees of administrative hurdles they encounter. One strategy USM deploys is to delegate students to focus strictly on either representation or project management. Given their experience now, Takacs claims, they have learned to operate in a flexible manner. “To achieve something, sometimes you have to change your approach.” At the moment, the council is triaging the response to the pandemic. “In the councils right now, it’s mainly about how we deal with COVID and how we can deal with the strategies for next year.”
The State of Things
The fate of future projects hinges on the recruitment of new members to carry on the work of the current representatives. USM is “looking for people driving to improve the university, who are trying to help other students and have innovative ideas.” Recently, leadership has undergone changes. Takacs has transitioned to the positions of vice-president and head of external affairs. Shaking up leadership, he says, is critical to allowing members who have made strong contributions and have taken on a great deal of responsibility to advance. A shift in position also provides a new perspective. “At some point, even if you found something, you have to step back and look from a different point of view.”
The conversation with Takacs sheds some light on the philosophy and aspirations of one of UM’s political parties. For students curious about seeing the parties in action and learning about their distinct approaches, Takacs’ advice is perhaps the best way to go: “We have a responsibility as a party to reach out to students in an effective way, but I also encourage students to visit our social media, well, not just ours. All the other parties, too!” Keeping track of the several student parties is a readily actionable step for the social media-native student generation. The rest – meaningful and effective participation engagement – is up to the parties themselves.
This article was contributed to, and edited by, Peter Pelzer.