Portrait of Katharina Rapp

„I've always wanted to help form the University.“

Interview with student senator Katharina Rapp
Portrait of Katharina Rapp
Image: Johannes Schmechel

Katharina Rapp is a ninth semester student of communication science and psychology. She has been enrolled at Friedrich Schiller University since 2018 and has been advocating for other students ever since.

How long have you been involved in the University committees?

Since my first semester. From the very beginning, I wanted to play an active role in shaping my studies and stand up for my fellow students. At the beginning, I joined the Departmental Student Council (FSR) for communication science as an independent member. From the third to the eighth semester, I was active as an elected member in the FSR, among other things as a budget officer and chairperson. During this time, I also served one year as a student member on the Studies Commission and one year on the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences. In 2022, I did not run for office again because I also pursue honorary positions outside the University, which are quite time-consuming.

For the Student Council (StuRa), I have been active as an independent member of the cultural department since mid-2022. In addition, I have been involved as a public relations consultant since July 2020 and I am the coordinator of the Market of OpportunitiesExternal link. My motivation for my StuRa work is to make a difference for all students, not just those in my department. By the way, as a consultant you are not directly elected by the students in the committee elections, but by the committee itself. Therefore, I only have an advisory function and do not vote on the resolutions. Unfortunately, I am the only speaker out of a possible three. I often feel alone with the work and can only implement a few ideas.

Since October 2022, I have also been one of the four student senators, representing the interests of the nearly 18,000 students in the highest committee of our University – the Senate. This entails a lot of responsibility for me, which at the same time also motivates me.

What are your specific responsibilities on the various committees?

For me, the Departmental Student Council is the link between the lecturers and the students of the department. It advises students on problems in their studies, regularly conducts surveys and networks students with each other. As a member of the Departmental Student Council, I helped organize workshops, excursions, summer parties and pub nights for students. Often lecturers have participated as well. As budget officer, I mainly kept track of the funds and prepared a budget. As chairperson, I looked after the e-mail inbox and prepared and led the meetings. In the Institute Council, which meets every four weeks, we exchanged ideas with professors and other lecturers about current events at the University's Institute and were also able to contribute student perspectives, for example, on how teaching can still be improved.

For the StuRa, I mainly look after the Instagram account and take care of the website in the "akrützel" – the student newspaper of the University of Jena. Since 2020, I have been organizing the Market of Opportunities – a large fair for community involvement with almost 100 exhibitors. In the culture department, I initiated a new format – the CultureDay. Once a month, StuRa members and students go to museums, exhibitions or theater performances in Jena and take advantage of the culture ticket, which is included in the semester fee for 2 euros.

As a student senator in the Senate, I have to prepare well for the meetings. In appointment procedures, I particularly read the student reports critically and make contact again if necessary. Here, we vote on guidelines and regulations, e.g. the anti-discrimination guideline.

During my time as a student, I am taking advantage of many opportunities for student participation and involvement. For example, I was also a student representative of a working group and helped develop the new master's programme in political communication, which is being offered at the University of Jena since 2021.

How are you in contact with the students you represent on each committee?

I have conducted many surveys among students for the Departmental Student Council, e.g. on requests for events or on problems in studying or teaching. But representing almost 18,000 students, as I do now in the Senate, is more difficult than representing the fellow students in your own, rather small department. The Student Council's Instagram account is a great help here – we reach many students through it, and the students reach us.

As a student senator, I try to attend every Student Council meeting and am thus informed about current events in the student body. I also personally keep in touch with fellow students of different departments a lot and ask them directly about study-related issues. Nevertheless, we should think about more ways for students to contact us as their representatives.

What feedback do you get from fellow students about your work?

Often the feedback is very positive. Many of my fellow students are interested in my duties on the committees or want to know what motivates me to get involved. After all, the honorary office is unpaid and virtually a "leisure activity". University political events are often a topic of conversation – I'm heavily involved in that, too, so it's hard to avoid it. When I explain the structures, the students often say: „Oh, wow, I didn't know that.“ I receive a lot of appreciation and gratitude for what I do – that motivates me.

How do you rate the opportunities for students to participate and have a say in shaping the University?

I myself have had good experiences and rate the opportunities for participation and involvement as „good“, but I also know many students from University politics who have had quite different, negative experiences in this regard. I have almost always felt that my opinion is respected. Of course, not all of our demands can always be implemented. Of course, there are also people who dismiss our opinion – I have experienced that myself. There are people who give the impression that they are not interested in what we have to say or who ignore our student perspective. But that is not the rule for me. Especially in the subject-related committees such as the Institute Council, I have had consistently positive experiences, for which I am also very grateful.

A bigger problem is that students do not make sufficient use of their opportunities for participation. Students are formally involved in all committees and processes, yet there are regular problems recruiting students for this work. In some cases, not all seats can be filled because no one is willing to take them. The reasons are diverse: on the one hand, many are not aware of the opportunities for participation, and on the other hand, the relationship of dependency to lecturers is a hindrance. We should not forget that as the voice of the students in committees, one sometimes confronts teachers with whom one may still have to take an exam – this can have an intimidating effect. The amount of committee work is also a problem. We don't receive any money, no expense allowance, we do it in our free time, while employees use their working hours and get paid for it. One reason is probably resignation. In conversations with students, I often hear that nothing can be changed anyway because we are underrepresented in the committees. In addition, quarter parity does not apply to decisions on research and teaching.*

How could this be improved?

One possible approach would be to reward committee activities, i.e., to create incentives – for example, through ECTS. This is already possible at some other universities, e.g. in Kiel or Dresden. In Erfurt, too, students have now obtained credit, but the exact implementation is still pending (source: statement by student representatives at the University of Erfurt). It would also be conceivable to anchor a "committee semester" in the Higher Education Act, as is the case in the Saxon Higher Education Freedom Act (SächsHSFG). This would mean that for one term of office (two semesters), the study period of one semester is not counted towards the standard study period. In addition, an optional module could also be specified in a possible framework that would apply to all departments, where university political activity would be taken into account.

The University could more actively recruit students for committees or draw attention to the opportunities for participation. Currently, much is done through the Departmental Student Councils and the Student Council, which are called upon to look for people for committees or to provide them. Because of the close contact to students, it makes sense that we advertise for them. However, this does not release the University from doing the same, e.g. via a university-wide mailing list or in lectures.

It would also be important to give student representatives a good introduction to the committee work by offering some kind of preparatory meeting. Laws should be presented, rights explained, and the general process of a meeting outlined. When I joined the Faculty Council of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, this was implemented at that time and helped me personally a lot. In addition, I found it to be a sign of appreciation.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the commitment – even if it is not remunerated and takes place in free time – is very enjoyable and incredibly interesting. I can only encourage any student who is thinking about getting involved in this way to take advantage of the opportunities that are there. We have this right of participation and influence, and we should make use of it.

Thank you very much for the interview!

The interview was conducted by Irena Walinda.

*Note: Quarter parity means that all four status groups (students, professors, academic staff, and technical and administrative staff) have the same number of votes in the committees of the respective university.