5.3 Youth representation bodies
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The Polish political system provides no comprehensive solution to the youth question. Although there are legislative pathways enabling dialogue between youth and policy makers at various levels of political authority, they do not form a coherent and effective system. At the moment, the nature and operating principles of Polish youth’s representation are being debated. Two positions have emerged: The first view proposes to select a youth representation at grass-root level and, as a result of cooperation between organisations, bringing together young people. According to the second view, the composition of bodies representing Poland on the provincial and national level should be selected with increased or exclusive participation of government representatives (at central level) and representatives of Government administration (at provincial level)
Issues concerning the inclusion of all youth groups
There are forums bringing together youth with special needs, for example organisations for disabled students operating in higher education institutions, but there are no specific programmes encouraging young people with fewer opportunities or at risk of exclusion to increase their participation in representative bodies. In the case of the process of effective consultation and opinion seeking, the way in which children and youth representations are selected is more likely to attract elites, outstanding individuals with high social, economic or cultural capital than youth at risk of exclusion. For example, neither of the positions described above provides for mechanisms guaranteeing that disabled young people, those living in rural areas or those discriminated against in any way will have a sufficient representation at national level. Although the demand to equalise opportunities is relatively well adopted at the level of programme beneficiaries, in Poland the concept of “those excluded” from being full members of groups “representing” young people and their interests before the authority is something rather “unthinkable” in Poland.
There is no bona fide children and youth parliament in Poland operating as an institution elected by general election and thus possessing democratic legitimacy. The Children and Youth Parliament (Sejm Dzieci i Młodzieży) is a representative institution in name only. In reality, this is an educational project of the Polish Parliament Chancellery and is not an element of the legal system. Its nature is purely didactic, consultative and opinion-forming. In addition to the Polish Parliament Chancellery, the Ministry of National Education and several other entities, including non-governmental entities, participate in its organisation.
In light of the absence of a democratically elected youth parliament, the Children and Youth Parliament sometimes plays the role of a forum bringing attention to issues considered important by young Poles. The Children and Youth Parliament brings together 460 students of lower and upper secondary schools who are selected on the basis of competitions. Young deputies are appointed for a term of one year and they meet once a year at a plenary session.
Role and responsibilities
Each term of the Children and Youth Parliament focusses on a specific keynote topic. Apart from that, plenary sessions offer Parliament members an opportunity to present their viewpoints, opinions and proposals concerning the activities of authorities, especially those governing education, aimed at the improvement of children’s and young people’s situation. The Children and Youth Parliament adopts resolutions which are subsequently submitted to representatives of the legislature and the executive. Plenary sessions held by the Children and Youth Parliament include speakers and deputy speakers of the upper and lower houses as well as selected members of Parliament. Sessions of the Children and Youth Parliament which are traditionally held on 1 June (International Children’s Day) enjoy impressive media coverage which contributes to raising public awareness of children’s and young people’s problems. Keynote topics discussed in the Children and Youth Parliament in recent years include:
The Children and Youth Parliament has no legal personality which is why it does not possess any financial resources nor does it make decisions on the distribution of public funds. It can only suggest certain activities in this field. The organisational costs of the Children and Youth Parliament are covered by the Chancellery of Polish Parliament and the other organisers.
It is difficult to present a synthetic description of the whole system of youth organisations operating in Poland as there are significant differences between bodies representing young people. For example, Poland’s two basic organisations representing youth at central level have different origins, structures and missions, whereas regional and local bodies representing young people are better empowered by the legal system thanks to statutory provisions. However, a great extent of their scope of activity is not standardised which is why there are immense differences in the process of recruitment and the role, scope of responsibility and possibilities of tangible action.
The Children and Youth Council of the Republic of Poland (RDiM - Rada Dzieci i Młodzieży Rzeczpospolitej Polskiej) was appointed as an advisory and consultative body operating at national level by the Minister of National Education on the strength of an act in the first half of 2016. It is an advisory body operating under the authority of the Minister of National Education.
The Polish Council of Youth Organisations (PROM - Polska Rada Organizacji Młodzieżowych) was appointed as a union of associations in 2011. Although it operates under the auspices of the Ministry of National Education and receives targeted subsidies, it remains an independent non-governmental organisation from a legal viewpoint.
The activity of municipal youth councils and communal youth councils is regulated by the Local Government Act whose Article 5 (b) states that: following an application from the communities concerned, the commune council may give consent to the establishment of a communal youth council of a consultative nature (Journal of Laws 1990 No. 16 item 95 as amended). The role of the commune council is of paramount importance here as it determines the scope of tasks, prerogatives, formal statutes and the voting system of its youth council. Unfortunately, there are no similar provisions at the level of districts or provinces, which is why youth representations operating there often take the form of associations or bodies appointed as part of social consultation.
The Children and Youth Council of the Republic of Poland operating under the authority of the Minister of National Education is composed of 16 members and 16 deputy members representing all provinces. Membership is comprised of individuals selected by the Ministry of National Education from among young applicants taking part in open recruitment procedures. They are selected on the basis of competencies and experiences (activity, engagement, previous work for organisations). Lower- and upper secondary school students who are 13 or over may become members of the Council, as well as lower- and upper secondary school leavers until they turn 21. They are appointed for a term of one year. The Council elects its President and Vice-Presidents from within.
Membership of the Polish Council of Youth Organisations is open to any youth organisation who adhere to the following criteria: Any youth organisation operating in accordance with Polish law, co-administered by people under 35 and with at least 2/3 of members under 35, or those bringing together young people as an association or a legal person with organisational structures described in their statutes and with at least 2/3 of members under 35. The Polish Council of Youth Organisations is open to public, nationwide and regional organisations and to those which bring together particular groups of youth (e.g.: students). Each of those categories of organisations has its separate structure in the Council. Representatives of all full members (organisations) of the Polish Council of Youth Organisations elect a ten-strong management board from among themselves which takes a vote to elect the authorities of the association. Individuals sitting on the Council’s management board are delegated by their own organisations but it is their duty to represent the interests of all young people in Poland.
The most common practice is that communal and municipal youth councils recruit their members by electing them. Usually, all lower- and upper secondary school students and - more rarely - primary school pupils from the relevant administrative area have the right to vote. Elections are usually organised in schools in close cooperation with the student government and teachers. This school-based electoral system has a certain disadvantage as it means excluding young people not in education who do not always possess the appropriate qualifications or competences to participate in the political or civic life of their local community (Sińczuch, 2012). Youth councillors are usually elected for one year or two years. Councils are usually autonomous in choosing their authorities and subcommittee members. About 200 communal and municipal youth councils are currently registered in Poland which means that youth councils operate within every 12th local government unit (8%) .
Role and responsibilities
The letter appointing the Children and Youth Council of the Republic of Poland operating under the authority of the Minister of National Education states that its tasks include expressing opinions and presenting proposals concerning children and young people in the scope of matters remaining within the remit of the education and upbringing area of the government administration. In particular they present opinions on planned changes, and include proposed solutions. There was some controversy surrounding the appointment of the Council. The Ministry was accused of having a lack of vision regarding the scope and scale of the Council’s role within the system of legislation and social consultation.
The objectives of the Polish Council of Youth Organisations include: “the promotion of youth participation in public life, the provision of information to public opinion about the state of youth policy in Poland and the representation of member organisations”. However, its principal role is to undertake activities aimed at the creation of a coherent and modern youth policy in Poland. The Council also represents its member organisations before the public sector and other circles; disseminates information and promotes the activity of youth organisations bringing together young people and acting on their behalf. In 2013-2015 the Polish Council of Youth Organisations was granted the status of an organisation officially authorised to represent Polish youth at EU youth conferences. It co-operates with entities such as the Public Benefit Activities Council (Rada Działalności Pożytku Publicznego), the Visegrad Group, and the European Youth Forum (Europejskie Forum Młodzieży), to name but a few.
The objectives of communal and municipal youth councils are not statutorily defined, they are usually of a consultative nature. Communal and municipal youth councils are most frequently consulted about youth issues such as education, culture, sport, safety, communication and others. Apart from their advisory and consultative activities for local governments, those councils are meant to promote active citizenship and democratic practices among young people as well as identify the local needs of young people in their community.
Polish bodies representing young people seldom have a real opportunity to influence the distribution of funds. The costs of the activities undertaken by them and their day to day operational costs are usually covered by direct funding or targeted subsidies coming from the central budget or local government funds.
Communal and municipal youth councils cannot have their own budgets as they have no legal entity status. However, this situation is now changing due to the dissemination of the formula of participatory budgeting. Some communes are introducing separate participatory budgeting for youth.
The Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland (PSRP -Parlament Studentów Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) is a nationwide representation of all student governments. Its objectives, tasks, structure and electoral procedures are determined in the Act on Higher Education (Journal of Laws 2005, No. 164, item 1365). It is an independent and self-organised body possessing the status of a legal entity.
The Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland is an umbrella organisation for all student governments operating in Poland. Pursuant to the Act, all students of a higher education institution form its student government. Quoting the exact number of people holding positions in student government bodies across the country is difficult. However, assuming that 4-6 persons per faculty are members of student government authorities, then, depending on the Higher Education Institution (HEI), about 0.3% to 1% of the total student population would be represented. 154 delegates participated in the most recent national assembly of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland. They represent various HEIs, regardless of their type of ownership and functioning. Each delegate representing a HEI educating between 1000 and 4000 students has one vote. Delegates representing HEI’s with 4000-10,000 students have two votes and another vote is given for another 10,000 students above this number. Delegates elect their Chairperson and statutory organs - the Executive Council, Student Council and the Review Commission - for a two-year term of office. Delegate assemblies take place at least once during each two-year term of office of the statutory organs of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland, whereas Executive Council sessions occur at least once a month. Student Council sessions are scheduled in separate regulations adopted at the beginning of a new term of office. The Executive Council is the Student Parliament’s collegial executive body. The Executive Council is composed of the Chairperson of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland and of not fewer than 2, but not more than 6, Executive Council Members. Executive Council members are appointed and dismissed by the Chairperson of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland on the strength of a decree, which is subsequently ratified by the Assembly (or, when outside the period of Assembly deliberations – the decree is ratified by the Student Council). The decision of the Chairperson of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland specifies the tasks of Executive Council members. The Student Council is composed of the Chairperson of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland and 12 members appointed by the Assembly. All main organs of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland are appointed for a term of two years.
Role and responsibilities
The basic task of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland consists in representing student communities before state organs. Parliamentary representatives participate in the work of public administration bodies, Parliament and Senate Commissions. The Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland gives opinion on legislation concerning the Polish higher education system and students’ privileges and rights. It is Poland’s only representative body in the European Student Union. The specific objectives of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland are specified in its Statute as:
“1) representing and promoting students’ educational, social, economic and cultural needs;
2) protecting the rights and interests of all students in the country and Polish students abroad;
3) creating and promoting student attitudes oriented towards active cooperation in the development of civil society;
4) identifying and removing barriers to young people’s academic, cultural and sports development;
5) supporting student governance;
6) improving young people’s knowledge, skills and social competences through the provision of informative, scientific and cultural activities relating to higher education, education, upbringing and physical culture;
7) supporting student mobility”.
The Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland also gives its opinion on draft legislation and selects 4 representatives to sit on the General Council for Science and Higher Education (Rada Główna Nauki i Szkolnictwa Wyższego). The Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland elects an ombudsman for students whose tasks include intervening when students’ rights are endangered, especially in dealings with HEI authorities.
The Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland receives budgetary funding from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education. As an institution with the status of a legal entity it is also in a position to accept donations and bequeathed inheritances. The Review Panel appointed by delegates at assemblies is responsible for auditing the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland. The Chairperson and authorities of the Student Parliament of the Republic of Poland assume full responsibility resulting from their duties, on general principles applicable to entities being legal persons. The activities of student governments in HEIs and at faculties are funded by the relevant academic authorities.
The scope of responsibility of Polish school student governments is provided in Article 55 of the Education System Act of 7 September 1991. The most important responsibilities of Polish school student governments include electing class representatives, electing each school’s student government, as well as ensuring school student participation in the School Council. Moreover, those who are members of school student governments have the right to submit motions and opinions regarding all school matters, - especially those relating to the observance of basic student rights - to school councils, teaching staff and heads of school. School student governments have the right to influence the organisation of school life in a way that ensures an appropriate balance between learning efforts and opportunities for developing and pursuing pupils'/students' own interests. Moreover, school student governments have the right to conduct cultural, educational, sport and leisure activities as well as information activities such as editing and publishing school newspapers, maintaining webpages, operating the school radio station etc. School students being members of school student governments have the right to choose teachers responsible for their governments and to be acquainted with curricula, their contents, objectives and requirements. The organisation and structure of school student governments depends on the students themselves. The only condition is that regulations governing the principles of electing school student governments and describing their activities should be adopted by the whole population of students in a school through a process of voting by equitable, secret and universal ballot. School student governments are an important element in school governance along with Heads of school and school councils. There is no body in Poland which would play the role of an official representation of school student governments. Issues relating to the observance of school students’ rights are the responsibility of ombudsmen for school students operating under the authority of provincial school superintendents. The Children and Youth Council operating under the authority of the Minister of National Education is supposed to play the role of a nationwide representation of school students (but not school student governments).
The powers of entities representing youth at national level are predominantly limited. Sometimes individual youth organisations speak in the name of their members, although it would be difficult to quote spectacular examples of the effectiveness of such activities. Representatives of authorities organise traditional meetings with young people. Such meetings are held both at national and local levels. Although they prove the authorities’ interest in such issues, rarely do they bring durable results such as legislative initiatives or propositions of specific solutions. Therefore, it is difficult to perceive them as representational bodies. Youth representation at regional level is very diversified. Practically every province can boast of some example of a forum focussed on youth which claims to represent young people. Some of those bodies are elected by young people by direct ballot, others are more in the style of conventions or conferences of local youth organisations.