Shaping the University

In the Senate, the Research Council, or the Senate Committee on Teaching—wherever we look, we can find students participating in decisions concerning the university. Two of them are Melina Arnold, Chair of the General Students’ Committee (AStA), and Sandro Mochan, Chair of the ENGAGE.EU Board of Learners. We asked them what topics they find especially important in their work.

Melina Arnold devotes between 30 and 40 hours per week to her role as advocate for students on the university’s governing committees—equivalent to a full-time job. Arnold, who is 27 years old, has been one of two chairs of the General Students’ Committee (AStA) since the fall of 2021. She is also a student representative in the Senate. Arnold studies in the Mathematics in Business and Economics program and has many ideas for how the university could develop. Her ideas can be summarized in three words: digitalization, sustainability, equality. “I want to maintain the progress we made in digitalization during the Covid pandemic,” Arnold said. “One specific goal is to make recording lectures standard practice so that students can watch them again during the exam period.” Two other important goals are introducing digital exams and making written exams anonymous. “If fewer exams are taken on paper, then that will make them much more sustainable. Making exams anonymous will mean that gender and ethnicity will not affect the correction and grading process—either consciously or unconsciously.”

Arnold and the AStA are currently working on several projects related to sustainability. Right now, the Mensa offers two subsidized meals: one vegetarian choice and one with meat. “We want there to be a subsidized vegan alternative, too. More and more students are becoming vegans, and anyone can eat a vegan meal.” The AStA is also continuing its work on the project Cup to Go (which is replacing disposable cups with reusable ones), campaigning for water dispensers on campus, and working on getting fair trade products into the university’s vending machines. When it comes to equality, standardizing the exam regulations is the top priority. “Currently, the different exam regulations have very different deadlines and grounds on which students can withdraw from exams. We want the same regulations to apply for all students.” 

Arnold is satisfied with how the university administration handles students’ concerns. Besides the meetings with the President and Executive Vice President, which take place twice a semester, other offices such as Student Services and the Studierendenwerk have an open-door policy for student representatives. “However, sometimes we feel like there aren’t enough quick, pragmatic solutions. I know that many decisions would have legal consequences that we don’t always completely understand. But we tend to think in the time span of our term of office, which is one year. So when we hear it will take four years for something to be implemented, we find that disappointing. The university administration works on a much longer timescale.”

As the Chair of the AStA, Arnold can set specific priorities. But as a Senate member, she has more of a monitoring role: “The agenda is set. My main job is to scrutinize the various topics.” She especially does this for budget topics, placing an emphasis on investing in sustainability. 

There are many opportunities for students to get involved at and for the university. Students are represented in numerous bodies, ranging from the Senate and its committees to the school councils and examination committees to the Studierendenwerk’s council of representatives. 

Students also have the right to a say in ENGAGE.EU, an alliance of nine European universities that includes the University of Mannheim. Sandro Mochan is the Chair of ENGAGE.EU’s Board of Learners, which comprises student representatives from all member universities. “Since ENGAGE.EU was only founded in 2020, I’m doing a lot of administrative work and work to raise the alliance’s profile. I make sure the students’ perspective is included in the processes, for example by pointing out that calls for applications shouldn’t go out during the exam period or that the recognition of the courses offered needs to be regulated so that students who participate can be certain that they will definitely get credit for a course they take at one of the universities in the alliance,” said Mochan, who is 22 years old and studies in the Business Administration program. ENGAGE.EU offers seminars, summer schools, and conferences that alliance members can attend.

In the future, the student representatives’ influence will increase further; their call to be given their own funding has been approved.  Now that they have this new funding, Mochan has set his sights on two projects: a regular student conference that takes place at the various partner universities on a rotating basis and discusses a relevant European topic, and an ambassador program so the participants can get more students excited about ENGAGE.EU. Mochan summarized the goals as follows: “We want to make students so mobile and so connected that they can live out the European ideal in an educational environment.” 

Text: Katja Bauer/May 2023