Digitally, with spot checks or check-ins with green stickers
Using Covid passes to keep universities open is possible, but not in the way the government is proposing. That was the gist of a letter we sent to the government, together with the universities of applied sciences. We also sent a copy to the Lower House, which is debating the issue this week. Universities want to continue in-person teaching as much as possible, because it’s essential for student mental health. We are therefore advocating for a different approach to Covid passes. Below, we list our objections to the current arrangements and set out some feasible alternatives.
First, the requirement to show a Covid pass limits accessibility. Access to education, including higher education, is a right for students, and the university has an obligation to provide education. Even in the current circumstances, the government is holding universities to that obligation. Students who cannot attend a lecture in person must be given full teaching as a substitute. However, as Pieter Duisenberg, President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, says: 'We cannot ask our lecturers, who already have a very high workload, to provide full teaching twice: in person and online. In many case it is possible to put lectures online, but duplicating the teaching for small, project-based or practical courses is not feasible.'
There are also practical objections to introducing Covid passes in higher education: collectively, research universities and universities of applied sciences have hundreds of locations, and run thousands of lectures and tutorials each week. The need to check passes would create major implementation problems. As Pieter Duisenberg says, 'Universities are not like festivals. We can’t put a few security guards in a single location and call it done. It’s impossible to check hundreds of thousands of students every day in hundreds of locations.'
Thirdly, there is the question of whether an invasive tool such as a Covid pass is necessary in a sector where vaccination coverage is high (over 90%), many students have already had the disease, and there have been no major clusters of infections since the outbreak of the pandemic.
How it can be done: innovative alternatives to checking every student
If the government decides to introduce Covid passes in higher education, it can be done with alternative types of checking and a limited range of alternative forms of teaching. With regard to checking Covid passes, neighbouring countries make extensive use of risk-based checks. Switzerland, for example, has had considerable experience with systematic spot checks:
The universities were able to decide for themselves whether to make Covid passes compulsory, and most decided to do so. Students are expected to carry their ID and 3G pass with them at all times. These are checked regularly, for example when entering tutorials. Spot checks are a minimum in Bern, Zurich and Freiburg. Lecturers are also allowed to check. For many lessons there is a digital alternative, but not for practical lessons. This disadvantages students without a 3G pass.
Some countries use green stickers on student ID cards to indicate that someone has been checked, and has shown a test, vaccine or recovery certificate. This means that the entire pass only has to be checked once; after that, only the sticker has to be checked (which is much faster). In Germany, universities use either spot checks or a check-in system.
Students show their test, vaccine or recovery certificate and get a green sticker on their student ID card. Some universities require check-ins: students must register for every lecture, using the student number linked to the 3G pass. This means registration is only possible with a valid status. if there is any doubt, it is possible to check whether everyone is registered. There are no queues, but teachers are under a lot of pressure to keep attendance lists. In many cases, large-scale lectures still take place online.
In Canada, they’re a bit more innovative: thousands of students at Carleton University check in before class using an app called ‘cuScreen’. Through a self-assessment, you indicate your status: vaccinated and/or recovered or tested. Then the system gives you the green light to go to campus or a red light if you do not meet the requirements.
The rules vary between universities. Students show their test, vaccine or recovery certificate and get a green sticker on their student ID card. Or they have to upload their 3G pass, which is then digitally linked to their student ID card. However, check-ins are still used: students must register for every lecture using the student number linked to the 3G pass, so registration is only possible with a valid status. Spot checks can be used, or Covid passes can be actively requested in the event of complaints. Some universities use entrance gates or checkpoints. Sometimes additional verbal questions about health are asked, or students’ temperatures are taken. When this is done queues are reported, and there is significant pressure on teachers to keep attendance lists. For these reasons, only around 60% of capacity is used. Around 40% of teaching (including large-scale lectures) still takes place online. Vaccination is becoming compulsory at more and more universities.
How it can be done: Innovative alternatives to 100% education
Most students are vaccinated, have already had the disease and are willing to be tested. So if they test positive for Covid or have to go into quarantine, they will only miss in-person classes for a short period. Students are often ill for short periods, and they usually catch up quickly.
For those who are unable to attend in-person classes for a long period of time, or deliberately choose not to attend, it’s a different story. We are mainly talking about vulnerable students – those with a chronic illness, for example, who cannot take the risk of coming to campus. There is also a group of unvaccinated students (probably a very small group), who are unwilling to be tested and therefore – as long as the Covid pass requirement is in place – cannot attend in-person classes.
Universities will of course stream lectures for these small groups wherever possible, and offer alternative forms of teaching and assessment. We have already gained experience with alternative forms of education, during last year’s lockdown. To minimise study delays, we are also investigating alternatives that could avoid adding to lecturers’ already high workloads. These could include taking online modules from another university or taking massive open online courses (MOOCs), which would replace courses that are normally part of the curriculum but lead to roughly the same learning outcomes. Even such efforts, however, are not expected to succeed in doing what the government is currently asking of lecturers: to provide 100% in-person teaching while also offering a full alternative for 100% of teaching. This is not feasible, not only because of lecturers’ workloads, but also because some components are only possible in a laboratory or practical classroom. It seems inevitable that a small group of students will suffer study delays if Covid passes are introduced. Finding solutions for replacement teaching will require flexibility from students, study programmes, regulators and politicians. Passing a law insisting on 100% full alternative education is the wrong starting point.
A plea to the politicians: make room for alternatives
Research universities and universities of applied sciences want to continue to provide in-person teaching as much as possible, because it is essential for student mental health. During the pandemic, we’ve learned that online education can provide useful solutions, but also has limitations in terms of an optimal learning process. Therefore, since the pandemic began, higher education institutions have been thinking about ways in which in-person education can continue, even now that infections are rising again. Institutions envisage that 3G Covid passes would be introduced as a measure of last resort. However, as explained above, the way the Covid pass system is currently designed stretches the limits of what is possible in higher education. The higher education umbrella organisations are calling on the Lower House to recommend that institutions be given space to find alternative methods of implementation, instead of checking 100% of students, as currently required by the government. In addition, we ask for maximum space and flexibility in providing alternative education, without having to guarantee 100% full alternative education as the government requires. In short: The Universities of the Netherlands would prefer to avoid introducing Covid passes, but if the government does choose to introduce them, these adjustments will make them feasible.