A Covid pass for higher education? Eight questions and answers

It’s still on the table, the Covid pass as an entry permit for higher education. Outgoing Minister Van Engelshoven will shortly be discussing this subject with the institutions, student associations and unions.

All across the country – including at universities – social distancing is no longer mandatory. And soon there will be no mandated maximum group size for lecture halls either. Meanwhile, more and more venues are asking for a Covid passport. It hasn’t hit higher education yet, but this could change.

What is it?

The Covid pass allows access or entry. You use the pass – usually a QR code on your phone –  to show that you are probably not infected with Covid-19. You only get the pass if you’ve been fully vaccinated against the virus, recently tested negative or have proof of immunity because you recovered from the illness.

Will we be seeing such an entry pass in higher education as well?

It is certainly not inconceivable. Some voices were raised in the spring in favour of bringing in such passes. And after new relaxations of measures were announced, the University of Groningen’s board chairman Jouke de Vries did not rule out the possibility of launching the pass there. “I can see it happening”, De Vries said to the university council.

The consultations scheduled to take place soon on the topic of entry passes in secondary vocational education and higher education also point to the fact that the option is still on the table. The discussion will focus on “what a system of entry permits could look like in education if they were to be implemented in the future”.

Why a Covid pass?

It has become clear that vaccination does not offer full protection against the virus and vaccinated people can still spread the disease. This makes a Covid pass ineffective, say those opposing the measure, if the vaccinated don’t have to produce a negative test too.

But not everyone agrees. People who have not been vaccinated have a “much greater chance” of catching and spreading Covid-19 than those who are vaccinated, experts say, such as microbiologist Dr Marc Bonten in NRC. He sees the Covid pass as a means of keeping the number of infections relatively low and preventing peak pressure on ICUs.

Isn’t that a form of discrimination?

A much touted argument against the Covid pass is that this would differentiate between people who’ve had the vaccine and those who haven’t – a form of discrimination. But having been vaccinated is not, according to the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, “a personal characteristic protected by law”.

But if people are unable to get vaccinated because of their bodily health or if they don’t want to because of their religion or world view, this could lead to unequal treatment. The Institute can launch an investigation, if requested.

A restriction, like the Covid pass as an entry permit, can only be allowed if it serves one of the objectives set out in the convention on human rights, including protecting public health and the rights of others.

Could a Covid pass be allowed in higher education?

Mandatory testing for an entertainment venue is different from getting tested or vaccinated to attend school. After all, everyone is entitled to an education. “What we don’t want is for a negative test to become a condition for receiving an education”, Minister Van Engelshoven said in March.

And yet, the ‘temporary law on testing certificates’ has a built-in option for making access tests mandatory in higher education. If the infection rate spikes, the decision could be taken very quickly.

Is it necessary?

Right now, the number of verified coronavirus infections is decreasing, which makes a difference. Fewer people are ending up in hospital and fewer are dying of the illness, too. If this trend continues, there will be no need for an entry pass. But is there anyone who can predict what’s going to happen this fall?

© HOP. Source: NICE/GGD.

Is controlled access really feasible?

You might think: if they can do it at the theatre or a festival, why not on campus? But a campus is open and has many different access points, while theatres and festivals are set up to funnel everyone past a box office.

In any case, it causes delays and a lot of fuss, which you would rather avoid in higher education. Therefore, the institutions might choose to use a system of sample testing: checking small groups, sort of like they do to catch free-riders on public transport.

What to do with people who refuse to produce a Covid pass?

Education is different than a beer down the pub or a play in a theatre. Access to education is such an important principle that something will have to be devised. Maybe extra cameras so that seminars and lectures can also be followed online? Or alternative assignments for those stuck at home? Rest assured, the last word has not yet been spoken on this.

Stay tuned

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