View of the world
Many students can count on their fair share of mathematics and statistics during their studies. But anyone who thinks they see little of “the real world” because of this is wrong. Thanks to initiatives like De Smeetskring and Improving Society Lab the doors to society are open wide. Both initiatives are great examples of how Tilburg University students use their knowledge and skills to play a meaningful role in society.
by Ans Hekkenberg
Improving Society Lab
Mathematician René Peeters coordinates Improving Society Lab, a two-year course in which students discover how econometrics can contribute to a better society.
What is the purpose of Improving Society Lab?
“During the course, students are shown all kinds of examples of how econometrics can make the world a little better. As a firstyear student, your courses will mainly be theoretical, a lot of mathematics and statistics. With Improving Society Lab, we want to demonstrate what you will be able to do with this mathematical knowledge.”
So, what can you do with econometrics?
“When people think about applications of econometrics, most of them think about optimizing the efficiency of companies: reducing costs, increasing profits. But optimizing efficiency is also important in many other areas. Think, for example, of the medical world – there is a lot of room for improvement there, too. We show our students how you, as an econometrician, can contribute to better radiation treatment plans for cancer patients. You don’t want to radiate for too long, but the treatment has to be effective. How do you optimize such a process?
Another application the students are introduced to is the distribution of food in emergencies. How can you provide a large refugee camp with food as efficiently as possible? It may come as a surprise, but that’s a mathematical question. Food parcels have to come from somewhere, be transported optimally, and end up in the right place. How do you do that in a way that helps as many people as possible?”
Are students aware that their field has such a wide range of applications?
“No, for a lot of students, the course is really an eye-opener. The applications that we cover are so broad, from calculating mortgage models to, for example, food aid.
How do you make sure the course is close to reality?
“The course ends with a case study, in which students themselves get to work on a practical problem. Often the cases are based on the graduation work of other students. So, we give the students real datasets to work with.
It’s the first time the students work in teams. That, too, is instructive. We not only show what econometrics can do for society, but also how it works when you want to achieve something with others.”
Fiscal legal aid foundation De Smeetskring
Professor of International Tax Law and International Fiscal Economics Eric Kemmeren is a member of the board of fiscal legal aid foundation De Smeetskring, a student organization that offers people of limited means legal aid in tax matters.
What is the purpose of De Smeetskring?
“It is a foundation of students who offer fiscal assistance to people who are less welloff. This means people with an income of up to €35,000. Students assist them with tax returns, payment schedules, appeals, and remission requests.”
What is the impact of this initiative?
“This impact is great, both for the students and for the people they help. We can often ensure that our clients get money back. Sometimes a few tens of euros; sometimes thousands of euros. And you have to remember: almost half of the clients have an income of less than €18,000. Every euro counts. You make sure someone gets a small amount of money back from the tax authorities and then you hear: ‘That’s great, now my kids can keep playing football.’
De Smeetkring is also important for the students. They are socially involved; some see a different side of society for the first time. When people expose their finances, other stories emerge, about family troubles, debts, and other problems. But take a story like the one about kids who can keep playing football. That’s the kind of experience molds you as a human being.”
How much money does the organization generate for this group annually?
“A total of some 550 to 650 thousand euros. That’s on the basis of some 1800 returns and 1300 other recommendations, which are done by 55 students.”
Is it easy for people to find you?
“Generally, yes. By word of mouth, but also through referrals from, for example, refugee work. What’s great is that our students are becoming more and more diverse. For example, we have more and more students who speak Arabic. This allows us to overcome language barriers ourselves. You can see here that the multicultural society is a fantastic enrichment.”
Do students do this work voluntarily?
“Yes. Some get credits for it, but not so many that it compensates for your working hours. Most students do this work because they think it’s important. You sometimes hear that young people are becoming individualistic, but here you find people who really have their hearts in the right place.”
Fiscal Legal Aid Foundation (Stichting Fiscale Rechtshulp or S.F.R.) De Smeetskring is named after Professor M.J.H. Smeets, the founder of the fiscal programs at Fiscal Institute Tilburg.