In the forthcoming academic year students will be allowed to attend lectures without social distancing. However, the group size may not exceed 75 students, and in the corridors face masks are mandatory and walking routes are in operation.
But you have to stay at home if you have a cold or other Covid-related symptoms – something that will happen more frequently now that autumn is approaching. Furthermore, there are students and lecturers who suffer from poor health and who cannot be vaccinated.
The Ministry of Education thinks that higher education institutions can find solutions to the practical problems on a case-by-case basis, with common sense and ‘mutual respect’. Nevertheless, how will this actually work in practice?
‘I think the discussions on this issue haven’t really got going yet’, says Ama Boahene, Chair of the Dutch Student Union. ‘I’m worried that it isn’t going to work out in all cases.’
Lisanne de Roos, Chair of the Dutch National Students’ Association, warns of problems too. ‘Students mustn’t fall behind in their studies if, as required, they go into quarantine if they show COVID-19 symptoms’, she says. ‘That would not encourage people to follow the rules.’
According to a brief survey, higher education institutions want to ‘enter into dialogue’ to find solutions case-by-case. After all, the situation can differ per student and per discipline, they say. Because of the workload they do not want to ask lecturers to give all their classes both online and on-campus.
They are confident that their lecturers will be able to teach in person. ‘A survey showed that the majority of our employees expected to feel safe on the campus in September and were looking forward in particular to working there again’, according to Maastricht University. Delft University of Technology points out that the vaccination rate among students is high: ‘That’s a positive sign.’ And if lecturers do have to stay away, they can generally make arrangements with one another, the spokesperson expects.
UvA Amsterdam, while foreseeing few problems with lecturers, takes a somewhat more formal view. It says on its website that the occupational health physician can be asked for advice. ‘A senior manager or dean/director takes the final decision on what the best solution is.’
Missing classes can sometimes have consequences for students. The attendance requirement will apply once more across the board, with certain reservations. Some students might have to redo a subject or task at a later stage if they are unable to attend, says the University of Twente. VU Amsterdam has a similar opinion: ‘It is of course harder to catch up on a practical assignment than on a lecture, but an alternative assignment could be devised for certain students.’
To prevent problems with the attendance requirement ISO and LSVb advocate digital solutions and ‘hybrid’ education (with online and on-campus classes at the same time). Boahene (LSVb) argues that lectures can easily be filmed; that applies to work groups as well, she feels. ‘You can get a student assistant to provide a livestream for a work group; that would make a big difference for a lot of students, even if they cannot easily participate in it.’
She does not believe this would increase the workload. ‘Lecturers seem to be afraid mainly of having to keep an eye on two classrooms simultaneously: on-campus and online. But if a student assistant is present, that doesn’t have to be the case.’
‘The education institutions are sympathetic’, says De Roos (ISO), ‘but we hear stories from them about a high workload among lecturers, potentially making it harder to offer alternatives. We have a number of concerns in that regard.’
The responses from Wageningen University and Utrecht University back this up. They stress that ‘hybrid’ education adds to lecturers’ workloads, which are already high. Some institutions, such as HU University of Applied Sciences Utrecht, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and the University of Amsterdam, have a few special classrooms for hybrid lessons, but cannot provide all the classes there.
Boahene of the LSVb believes that more ought to be done. ‘I’m very happy about the return of on-campus classes but we have gained a lot of experience of online education. It would be a shame to throw it all away and have to subsequently reinvent the wheel.’