For higher education, the second lockdown has been going on for far too long. The government is hoping that, from the end of April, students will be able to attend on-campus classes more often. There are all kinds of pilots testing how to do that safely.
But will a coronavirus test be mandatory for campus access? This has not yet been set in stone. Minister of Education Van Engelshoven is reluctant about mandatory testing, and Minister of Health De Jonge himself called access tests for higher education ‘not very practical’. But in the meantime he’s submitted draft legislation that would actually make some proof of testing mandatory.
The national student associations still see a lot of uncertainty. ‘It is of the utmost importance that, wherever possible, students start attending on-campus classes’, Dutch National Student Association chair Dahran Çoban said. ‘We think that test passports can be helpful in achieving that objective. My worst nightmare is that, when the time comes, you will be able to attend Lowlands with proof of testing but not your on-campus lectures.’
Çoban emphasised the point that students who – for any reason at all – aren’t able to produce proof of a negative test should still be able to attend classes on campus. ‘Then you will have to offer them an alternative.’
For months now, LSVb chair Lyle Muns has repeatedly emphasised the need to re-open higher education, but he thinks it’s too early for a discussion about obligations. ‘We still have no idea how things will be in September’, he said. ‘Instead of raising the hackles of a small group of students, let’s first try convincing everyone to get vaccinated and ensure that the testing system is functioning properly.’
In addition, he wants a return to normal for the educational sector, without social distancing. ‘The idea is that the majority of students will have been vaccinated come September. For students who refuse, institutes of higher education have to make free rapid testing available.’
And what about those who don’t want to be tested, or aren’t able to? ‘In principle, you don’t want to refuse anyone access to campus. After all, you’re denying them access to good quality education. To me that’s going too far.’
Professor of Educational Law at Tilburg University, Paul Zoontjens, thinks it ‘more or less inevitable’ that students will eventually be asked to produce test and vaccination passports. This is all related to the duty of care required of institutions, he explains.
‘A pub owner is also responsible to a certain extent for his customers’ safety, and in the same way, directors of institutions are responsible for the safety of the students and staff within the walls of their buildings. That’s a strong argument for demanding that no individual be allowed to risk infecting other people. Those who aren’t allowed access have to be given an alternative method of teaching, like online education.’
Hit with a claim
There are also legal reasons, Zoontjens continues. He offers the example of the class-action suit brought by thousands of skiers against the Austrian state Tyrol for failing to take measures to protect them from coronavirus. ‘You want to avoid being hit with claims like this. So no one can say: you’re the cause that I contracted the disease. This could happen to any organisation in the future.’
Is it conceivable that students would launch such a claim against their university or university of applied sciences? ‘It’s not impossible’, Zoontjens said. ‘I’m not sure what the chance of success is in such a case. But I think that many institutions want to pre-empt such situations.’
The idea of only letting people who’ve been vaccinated or who have a negative test result onto campus after the summer holiday is something that is still under discussion at a number of educational institutions. Rector of Radboud University, Han van Krieken, recently proposed such a measure in a blog, but the University softened that statement later on its website: ‘We’re not going to lock anyone out.’ The subject is also on the table at the University of Groningen.
Just to be on the safe side, Maastricht University solicited the advice of three professors of medical ethics. Their opinion is expected by mid-April, Rector Rianne Letschert announced.
Chair of the Executive Board of Avans University of Applied Sciences, Paul Rüpp, thinks asking students to get tested is a very real possibility. ‘In my opinion, these things have to be solved in a pragmatic way, keeping in mind the need to protect the majority. It’s a reasonable demand to make of our duty of care. Right now, for example, we have included in our code of conduct that not wearing a facemask and not maintaining social distancing can form reasons for removal from campus.’
Of course there have to be alternatives, Rüpp said. ‘They can participate in online education or if necessary sit in another classroom specially for people who don’t want to get vaccinated or tested. We now have so much experience in hybrid education that something like this doesn’t have to be a problem. Students are entitled to an education, but not per se to physical classroom teaching on campus.’
Press the button
He is hoping first and foremost that the results of the pilots currently being trialled for festivals and theatres (where social distancing can’t be enforced) will also help the educational sector move forward. ‘Because if it turns out we can admit more people thanks to self-testing, but we still have to observe social distancing, then we still haven’t solved the problem.’
The big question is, how long can we wait before crossing the Rubicon on this issue? September seems like a long way away, but all the lectures and seminars for the fall have to be planned now, Rüpp stressed. ‘Just to be sure, we’re going to organise our teaching so that we can revert from face-to-face to online by simply pressing a button. Because in September things may be quite different than we expect.’