Student Perspectives: Amina Bakhtaoui Van Deputte (VUB)

What does inclusion mean to you?

Often we focus too much on ‘disadvantaged groups’ and see inclusion as a privilege – as in ‘Because they are disadvantaged they have this privilege’. Instead, it should be normalised that everyone has the same options and rights, but we consider everyone’s personal situations and backgrounds.

How should students be involved as co-creators in Higher Education?

Sometimes there are focus groups – for example last month, there was one for the inclusion of transgender students. But it doesn’t get a lot of reaction from the students: the project is launched, they say there will be a focus group and they want student opinions, but not a lot of students respond to it. Or when we organise Pride in May, we want input from LGBTQ+ organisations, and it’s really difficult to get their input. So it’s a good start to have these focus groups, but it’s really important (as Irene and Victor said) for these people to be present in the whole decision-making process.

Sometimes I think they have the impression that the university just wants to listen to them, but then not do anything about it. I’ve heard this from some of my friends. It shouldn’t just end with ‘Give your opinion and we will listen to you’. In the Student Council, for example, there are mechanisms for all students to express their opinion (with votes etc.) but in practice people in the council can’t always be heard.

For me, it’s hard to get at the level of the professors: sometimes they are not open to these kinds of discussions. It feels like I need to navigate my language and be really careful with the words I’m using so they will accept something, so I give them the impression it was their idea, and then they will implement it and be more open. I think their attitude is, ‘I’m giving my classes and I have my way of teaching, and it’s the right way.’ I don’t want to give the impression that I’m doubting their teaching skills, but I want to tell them, ‘You are trying to be inclusive but you’re actually doing the opposite’. Like Irene said, having two slides about women’s rights or the history of women is not enough; or having one class about the Belgian colonisation of Congo is not enough.

The key is to get support from staff. If it just comes from the students it’s like ‘Oh yeah, it’s the students, and it’s just for the disadvantaged groups, they’re not the majority’. We should find a professor who is open to this – without their support it will be hard to make it happen.

Are there aspects of life at university that you think are not inclusive?

We have a place where you can go with complaints, but still people are very hesitant about what to do, they’re not sure who to talk to, whether to send an email or go to the information desk. So they keep quiet and nothing will happen, or if they do try to make their complaint they get redirected to the office and have to make the complaint again, re-telling their story and going through the trauma over and over.

I like the idea of people being able to send emails anonymously, but also agree with Ajda that they can only do this if they know how: that’s the issue with a lot of things at VUB, people lack knowledge, and we need to raise awareness among professors and students. The issue is that we don’t know how to do it. People don’t follow the relevant accounts or read their emails.

What new or improved practices would you like to see?

At VUB there are a lot of good projects about decolonisation, and about equality. In contrast with what Ariadna said, these projects are not visible, and when I talk to other students they don’t know about them. It’s sad because these projects are very good.

I think there should be a place where all students know they can go if they have questions or complaints. And I’d know that if I go there and I’m gaslighting myself, or neglecting my own experiences, the people here won’t gaslight me as well: they won’t say ‘Are you sure? Did you misinterpret this person’s behaviour? He’s a nice professor…’

I agree with the other students that to improve education we need to educate teachers through training workshops. And although it is difficult to create safe spaces with different people from different backgrounds, that include students and professors, it’s important that we try to do this so that we can have open discussions about these issues. That kind of process should be implemented on deeper level, and on a yearly basis, in a structured way.

It’s very hard because students are so much more engaged in talking about these topics, and as I said before, professors are just focused on teaching a course and don’t see this as part of their job. So I’d want to make this a place where everyone is engaged, everyone is trying to make everyone else feel comfortable. Students just want to get their degree, but it’s a shame that some have more obstacles because some people are not inclusive or welcoming.