The new nominal

| Niels ter Meer

A new quartile, new courses to pick. One has to confront how much work to take on (sorry bachelor students), whether to study nominal or not. But student columnist Niels ter Meer thinks this all is a misuse of the word ‘nominal’.


Last weekend, after traditionally postponing until the deadline, I was finally forced to sign up for some courses for the next quartile. Since I’m a master’s student now, that meant I had to consider how much work to take on: should I do two or three 5 EC master courses? To constantly chase deadlines, or to have time for myself. To nominal, or not to nominal?

So, a primer for those who forgot: nominally, a quartile consists of 15 ECTS (because one year is 60). In the Netherlands, by law, one ECTS is equivalent to 28 ‘hours of applied studying’. Since a quartile is 10 weeks, this boils down to 42 hours per week of studying. If you manage to do your programme ‘nominally’, you manage to pass everything within the set time — either three or two years.

‘Those 42 hours, that’s full-time’, one would say. But talking to some actual adults, their fulltime does not mean only working from 9 to 5. Unless you are under some unfortunate exploitative working conditions and/or if you are an (assistant/associate) professor, this also includes a couple of breaks, some chatting at the coffee machine, staring out of the window for a couple of minutes, toilet breaks, et cetera.

However, this is not the case for students. From what I’ve gathered, those 42 hours only count actually applying yourself to the work. Lunch break? Doesn’t count. Getting zoned out because you have been studying for the last 7 hours/days? Too bad. In some sense, it’s like a flexible contract, but somehow even worse: you are only evaluated on the parts you pass, even though you have to pay the whole tuition fee. How you’re supposed to make food for yourself, do house chores, and still have a life next to studying is beyond me.

What’s even worse: discovering that one can multiply and divide those numbers to arrive at 42, to some professors, that means that’s now their budget. They then proudly proclaim, that they — knowingly — filled the whole module to the brim, that it’s going to be a challenge but you can do it if you ‘work hard’, sometimes with the ‘excuse’ that it’s just like that in the ‘industry’, to a room also filled to the brim with a thousand overworked students.

Since we’re still talking about ‘nominal’, so let’s have a look what it means in that industry. For example, in rocketry, ‘nominal’ behaviour refers to the rocket behaving as expected. These expectations are meticulously modelled, simulated, and evaluated beforehand. If the behaviour is not ‘nominal’, this means something is going pretty wrong. Yet, in higher education, ‘nominal’ still refers to the expectation as in the sense of the law — those three (plus two) years of peak productivity — but practice shows the large majority does not meet this expectation.

At some point, we have to confront the fact that ‘nominal’ is a lie. Remember that once three students once showed up to a discussion about workload? The math clearly doesn’t work out; the model is off. Students are not studying machines, to be assigned a number to just do. We need time off too, to let all the new knowledge simmer and sink in.

For me personally, I went for a new nominal. Nominal, to me, is now two courses, not three, with a sprinkle of extracurricular work. Busy, but not insanely so. What would you want your new nominal to be?

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