Universities finally reopen, but unfortunately with restrictions
In its press conference on 13 August, the government announced that the 1.5-metre social distancing measure for staff and students in higher education will no longer apply. For the time being, however, in-person activities will be subject to a maximum group size of 75. Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU): ‘It is very good news that students can, for the most part, once again come to campus as a group to get the education they deserve. This is a big step forward in the return to normal. Our staff and students desperately need this. However, there is also a downside, as the maximum group size will severely restrict large-scale on-campus education activities. Both students and staff will be affected by this limitation. We hope that the restrictive measure of a 75-person maximum will soon no longer be necessary.’
Due to the lifting of the 1.5-metre social distancing rule, most forms of education, such as study groups and practicals, will take place on campus from the start of the academic year. However, the maximum group size of 75 students (which has been set to enable source and contact tracing in case of outbreaks) remains a significant obstacle. Because of this measure, a substantial number of lectures will have to be held online. Many students will therefore receive less face-to-face teaching in the first phase of the academic year. According to Duisenberg, ‘This is especially unfortunate because the first few weeks of September are packed with activities. Everything is aimed at meeting and getting to know each other, which sets the tone for the rest of your time at university. For the time being, we will still have to ask a large number of students to make do with a limited number of hours in the lecture hall. A great deal of flexibility will once again be expected from lecturers and scheduling staff as well.’
Largely reopened, but in a safe and responsible way
Naturally, the universities will also observe all applicable precautions in the coming academic year. In the previous period, for example, walking routes and hygiene measures prevented major outbreaks at universities. Face masks remain mandatory at all universities when moving between rooms. Good ventilation has been a key priority over the past 18 months and will remain so in the coming period. Universities are also responsible for reporting infections to the municipal health service (GGD). Furthermore, universities will continue encouraging students to get vaccinated through the slogan ‘Going to university? Get vaccinated!’ The willingness to take the vaccine is high among young people between 16 and 24 years old (81%; RIVM), but young people have had a relatively short amount of time to get vaccinated. To make getting vaccinated even easier, on-campus vaccination is being organised in consultation with the GGD in more and more university cities. In addition, free self-tests are available for students. Duisenberg explains, ‘Our campuses must be safe for both staff and students. We have been able to achieve this since March 2020, and safety remains the top priority in this new situation.’ Universities will consult with their staff and students to develop solutions if problems arise despite the above measures.
We can look back on a year and a half of studying, teaching and researching with significant coronavirus restrictions. The latest figures on study progress are now available. It appears once again that our lecturers and students have managed to get through the difficult period behind us without major study delays, which is a great achievement. Still, the restrictions of the past 18 months have had serious social consequences. More students have recently sought help with their studies or for mental health issues. People are also having different problems than before, specifically more related to depression and hopelessness. Duisenberg says, ‘The first 100 days of a study programme are absolutely critical, both for academic success and for personal development. We therefore hope that the restrictive measure of a 75-person maximum will soon no longer be necessary. This is also important for university lecturers.’
In the coming weeks, first-year students will get to know each other and their university. Although these orientation activities will take place in a modified format, they will give first-year students the opportunity to learn more about each other and the university they attend. Duisenberg: ‘The orientation period is extremely important for new students, and that includes students who started last academic year. We hope that these orientation days will help them get off to a good start at university.’