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Ombuds Officer for students: ‘My strength is influencing from the inside’

Eugène van der Heijden, the Ombuds Officer for students, tries to find solutions that both sides can live with. He deals with complaints from students who think they were treated inappropriately by a staff member or administrative board of the University.

You’re not allowed to start your thesis because you haven’t finished a tiny part of a course, you can’t reach your thesis supervisor, you are told ‘no’ whereas another student was told ‘yes’ or a lecturer was rude to you in class.

Independent and objective

If you and the University staff can’t find a satisfactory solution to your problem, you can contact the Ombuds Officer for students, Eugène van der Heijden. He will decide whether your complaint is ‘reasonable’ and within his field of responsibility, and if this is the case, he will take it on. This means he will listen to the other side of the story – but only with your permission. Because just as in everyday life, there are always two sides to a story, and he will want to hear both. In contrast to the University’s confidential counsellors, therefore, the Ombuds Office is not automatically on your side.

In 2017, a total of 139 students contacted the Ombuds Officer. One in six of their complaints were about matters that fell outside his field of responsibility, however, so Van der Heijden passed these on to the proper authority.

Eugène van der Heijden: mediation is my working style.

Back and forth

Van der Heijden describes his working style as that of a mediator. When dealing with complaints he often goes back and forth between the parties to see whether a solution can be found that is acceptable to everyone. At the same time, he tries to maintain or restore a good relationship between the affected parties. This means that it usually all turns out well in the end: ‘I see my strength as influencing from the inside.

Investigation

If it doesn’t prove possible to find a quick solution, Van der Heijden sometimes gets the two sides to sit down together in a confidential setting so that he can find out where the balance lies: on which point can the parties be brought together? It can be that the staff member or representative of an administrative body is unwilling to cooperate or denies that there is a problem. The Ombuds Officer then has the option of starting a formal investigation. Then he must officially inform those involved and the Executive Board. However, it doesn’t usually get that far.

Parallel with other procedures

The Ombuds Officer doesn’t generally follow a formal procedure with strict deadlines or requirements. However, he does regularly advise students to also lodge a formal complaint or appeal so that they can follow this route if necessary. Van der Heijden: ‘Lodging an appeal with the  Examinations Appeals Board is often the quickest way to discuss a matter with the Board of Examiners because a settlement discussion is compulsory here.’

One side in the right

There are instances in which the staff member or administrative board is in the right and instances in which it is the students, says Van de Heijden. He issues a clear decision then too. For instance, he received several complaints about a faculty in which the first and second supervisor had given theses very different grades. When he looked into this, he found that this was because some of the supervisors were more social and behavioural sciences oriented and other were more science oriented, so they looked at theses in a completely different way. Van der Heijden: ‘It is unacceptable for students to be confronted with such big differences in grades and I thought the students were quite right to complain about this.’ He asked the Executive Board to look into the matter, and the Faculty then took various steps to improve the situation.

The Ombuds Officer is now also at Beehive in The Hague, on every second Monday of the month. Make an appointment in advance.

Inappropriate behaviour from student

A complaint from a student that too much Dutch was being spoken in an English-taught programme was rejected. Sometimes it becomes apparent that students themselves have also behaved in an inappropriate manner. Some admit this straight away, but even if they don’t, Van der Heijden finds out anyway, once he has listened to both sides. It is advisable therefore to tell him the whole story from the outset.

Most student complaints are about lecturers and supervisors. This is logical because these are the people that they work most intensively with. This is followed by the boards of examiners or admissions, and then by the group of staff who support the teaching or who work on the information desk or in admin.

University constantly changing

Could an Ombuds Officer make himself redudant in the end? ‘I’m afraid not,’ says Van der Heijden. ‘If nothing had changed in 444 years, you might be able to come up with a definitive solution to problems, but the University is constantly changing. More programmes are being developed with contributions from different departments. You often see that it is then unclear who is supposed to do what. When a large group of students complained about this , I started asking questions. Initially, there was no answer: no one at the faculty could agree who should solve the problem...

Keep some distance

Van der Heijden is strict with himself. He keeps a keen eye on whether he has become joined at the hip with the University. ‘You have to keep some distance from your colleagues because you can always find yourself facing them in your work,’ he says. However, he does find it important to have a good working relationship with the colleagues that he works with a lot, such as those from the faculties and from Student and Educational Affairs. If he ever realises that he can no longer draw a line here, this will signify the end of his time in Leiden, or at least as Ombuds Officer. 

Who is Eugène van der Heijden?
Van der Heijden studied Civil Law in Leiden. ‘But long enough ago for this not to affect my work’, he says. He spent the next 30 years working in various legal advisory roles and was also head of Student Affairs at Delft University of Technology for some time. The transition to his present job was organic, he says. ‘I started doing more and more project-like jobs in which I was fairly independent, and was also active for a long period as an independent mediator.’ Alongside the three days that he works at Leiden University – recently also the second Monday of the month in Beehive student centre in The Hague – Van der Heijden is chair of an advisory board for complaints at two ministries and sits on a complaints board at Delft University of Technology. ‘My current job as Ombuds Officer really appeals to me because I have a great affinity to the crucial phase that students are in. I like to help make sure that there are no unreasonable obstacles for students within their programme at the University.

Text: Corine Hendriks
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