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University Council: making the University a better place, one step at a time

The new academic year has also begun for the University Council. Its first meeting with the Executive Board of the University was held on Monday 14 October. What is on this year’s agenda and how do staff member Marishka Neekilappillai and student member Dorien de Koning plan to achieve this?

The University Council’s priorities for the coming academic year can more or less be encapsulated in a single sentence: they focus on a sustainable, safe and inclusive University with strong student and staff participation, a good staff policy and healthy, active students. An ‘old favourite’ has made it to the list too: the position of PhD candidates. Much has improved in that respect in recent years, including a set of golden rules for supervision, but there is still a somewhat of a wish list.

University Council October 2019
Marishka Neekilappillai, PhD candidate and lecturer at Leiden Law School, PhDoc party.


Marishka Neekilappillai represents the PhDoc party on the Council. It’s no surprise that her particular focus is further improving the position of PhD candidates and postdocs. ‘I think it’s important that the needs and concerns of PhD candidates and postdocs are raised with the Board of the University. When I sat on the University Council last year, I heard from several PhD candidates that there is a lack of clarity about whether contracts will be extended if they are suffering from an illness such as burnout. The same is true if they are forced to stop doing their PhD because one of their supervisors no longer supports the project.’ She continues, ‘PhDoc is going to find out how the faculties deal with these types of situation. We will then talk to Board member Hester Bijl [this topic is in her portfolio, ed.] and will discuss whether a uniform PhD policy is preferable or essential on these points.’

Vulnerable group

PhD candidates often find themselves in a vulnerable position, says Marishka: ‘The University is hierarchical, and PhD candidates and postdocs are at the bottom of the ladder. What is more, their appointment is of limited duration, which can create uncertainty about the future.’ But Marishka’s efforts won’t be limited to PhD candidates and postdocs: ‘What I really enjoy about the University Council is being able to do my bit together with my colleagues and the very motivated students from the student factions to improve University policy for students and staff.’ Marishka is positive about the collaboration with the Executive Board: ‘Over the last two years as a staff member of the University Council, I’ve seen that the collaboration between the Council and the Board of the University is pleasant and productive. This environment makes it possible to speak openly about problems that are at play at the University.’

University Council October 2019
Dorien de Koning, law student, ONS Leiden

Encourage active students

Dorien de Koning represents the ONS Leiden student party on the Council, and sees it as her job to create the optimal study climate. ‘I think that students should be able to enjoy student life in a healthy and active way. That priority is the one that I feel most of a connection to. I want the University to continue to encourage active students. This can be by increasing the financial compensation for students who are serving on a board.’ She also wants to continue the discussion with the Executive Board on the importance of student welfare and how the University can contribute to this.

Committee chair

Dorien: ‘I was asked in 2018 if I wanted to be a candidate at the bottom of the ONS Leiden list, but I wanted more and applied for an electable position. I thought it would be a challenge to join in the discussion about the University at the highest level, and have really enjoyed it. What I like most about the Council work is increasing my influence by playing the political game at the University level: talking to the support base, asking critical questions and approaching the right people are all skills that I have acquired since doing this.’

You could say she is her own source of inspiration: ‘I really enjoy studying at the University, and make the most of all the opportunities outside the programme. I want other students to have a study experience that is at least as good as mine.’ After a year on the University Council, Dorien hadn’t quite achieved her ambition yet. She carried on heading the list of candidates for ONS Leiden, but is now also chairing the University Council’s heavy-duty Staff, Student Affairs and Internationalisation Committee. ‘It seemed like a good challenge, so I put my name forward. My job is to ensure that all the Committee members have their voice heard and that the different voices are brought together. It’s a real learning experience. What it boils down to at each meeting is making the University a better place, one step at a time.’

The University Council’s priorities for 2019-2020

Text: Corine Hendriks
Banner photo:
14 of the 16 members of the University Council
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