The higher education sector was on the edge of its seat the past few days: would they be able to slowly open their doors again, or not? Student organisations, board members and politicians have been advocating for more lessons on campus for months, however, the Government kept a non-committal stance up until the last moment: only last week its response was that the decision would depend on the situation in hospitals.
The advocates can now breathe a sigh of relief. “Not an incredible amount has changed, but just enough", said outgoing Prime Minister Rutte this evening. As of 26 April, students will be allowed to attend lectures again in person or experience another type of ‘live’ education one day a week. The ground rules of keeping a distance, washing hands and staying at home when experiencing symptoms remain in force.
Finally away from those computer screens and out of those tiny student rooms, Rutte said. “And even if this is just a first step, I believe this is still good news for students and educational institutions.”
Making use of the space
The student organisations confirm this. “Attending face-to-face education one day a week will hopefully make a difference to students, so that we can end this academic year on a positive note," says chairperson Dahran Çoban of the Dutch National Student Association.
However, the students are also looking further ahead. After all, one classroom lecture a week is still far from normal, according to chairperson Lyle Muns of the Dutch Student Union (LSVb). “Given the number of infections, it is understandable that classroom education is limited at the moment, but higher education must be fully open again in September.”
The Dutch Student Union (LSVb) has recently discovered that some degree programmes and faculties do not yet intend to offer classroom lectures as of 26 April. Muns is worried about this. “We call on degree programmes to optimise the space that they have now been given to the extent possible.”
‘Regular’ academic year
That said, the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, VSNU, cannot wait to open up the buildings. “We will do anything in our power to facilitate face-to-face meetings again”, says chairperson Pieter Duisenberg. “Be it through lectures, working groups, but also in our university libraries and other buildings.”
Duisenberg stresses that the objective remains to turn the 2021-2022 academic year into a ‘regular’ academic year in which every student can come to campus whenever he or she wants. “We call on the Government to include this in its plan to reopen society."
Free home testing
The reopening is not quite the same as the one in last autumn. This time, the Government is calling on all students and staff to take a preventive coronavirus test before coming to campus each time. Free home testing will be made available at the beginning of May. Tomorrow, more information will also be made available on the website Zelftestonderwijs.nl.
As yet, these tests will be taken on a voluntary basis. However, a new bill is currently pending in the House of Representatives, which, in extreme cases, will provide for compulsory coronavirus testing for students, though not for lecturers.
And this may even be necessary, as a pilot project at Avans University of Applied Sciences previously demonstrated that without coercion or reward there seems to be little enthusiasm among students to opt for the infamous cotton swab. A survey by Erasmus Magazine among Rotterdam students does not bode well either: more than half of the respondents say they would refuse to voluntarily test themselves for the presence of the coronavirus.
The past few months had incidentally not been a full lockdown for higher education. Students had already been allowed to go to campus for practical training courses and exams. Also, vulnerable students were given the option of support on campus.
Outdoor areas cafés open
The Government also announced further relaxations of the restrictions as of 28 April. The mandatory nightly curfew will be eliminated from that day and people will be allowed to receive a maximum of two guests per day, instead of only one. Also, cafés may open their outdoor areas from noon to 6 p.m. daily and there will be no more shopping-by-appointment. Finally, funerals held on or after April 28 will also be allowed to have more attendees (100) and exams for driving licenses will also restart on that date.
And as for gyms, theatres, museums and amusement parks? These will need to wait a little longer. The Government had to make choices, Rutte stresses. “If there is one thing that we have learned from last summer, it is that the country cannot be fully released out of lockdown all at once.”