Minister: ’We hope that campuses can open again after the 15th of June’

15 May 2020

For students, the ’doors will be ajar’ on campus from the 15th of June on. Or at least that is what the government is working on with all their manpower, said minister Van Engelshoven during her work visit on campus yesterday. She additionally wants to do more for students who are facing study delay due to Corona.

The last time minister Van Engelshoven payed a work visit to Radboud University, she cycled through the Thomas van Aquinostraat with President of the Executive Board Daniël Wigboldus. Now she is sitting 110 kilometers afar in The Hague. Because of the corona crisis, her visit is entirely online. ’I would have really liked to show you the Maria Montessori building that is now being built on the Thomas van Aquinostraat’, says Wigboldus during his words of welcome from his home’s attic.

A live-visit is simply not possible. Instead, the minister of Education, Culture, and Science is joining with WebEx into the conversation — with students, teachers, and researchers in order to get a better picture of the Corona crisis’ consequences on campus.

Medical biology student Marina Bool, member of the university’s student council, starts and details the hurdles students are encountering. ’Everything is now taking place in the student’s room: sleeping, eating, studying, relaxing, but also sitting finals.’ Difficult, of course, if the wifi-router needs to be shared with other flatmates. She herself moved back in with her parents because of that. ’I have more space here. And better wifi.’

The university’s doors ’being ajar’

The measures – and the consequences like the loss of student jobs – are cause for anxiety. Also because students are in the dark about the continuation of their studies. The latter is especially an issue for studies with a lot of practical work, adds medical student and student-assessor Iris Maessen. ’For example chemistry, but also my own study.’ According to her, the education of medical students is low on the list of priorities in general. Something that has worsened even more due to the Corona crisis.

The minister has hopeful news for Bool and Maessen. On Friday, the cabinet will discuss what to do for students who are encountering ’Corona delays’, for example because of cancelled practicals.

Besides that, Van Engelshoven is working on university doors ’being ajar’ for students from the 15th of June onwards, ’including physical forms of examination.’ She says this with caution, because whether the plan will go through or not, is dependent on the development of infection rates. Additionally, a good communication with the public transport companies is important, so trains and busses won’t be too overcrowded.

Minister Van Engelshoven visits Radboud University virtually from her office. Photo: Ministerie van OCW

A possible reopening of Radboud University is still not set, warns Van Krieken halfway through the meeting. ’We have calculated that under the current RIVM-rules, there is no more space for 10-20% of the students.’

Digital art- and flying-work

Physical forms of educations are also a silver lightning for educators. This becomes evident through accounts of teachers Mariska Kleemans and Simon Tans, who are speaking after the students. With digital art- and flying-work, it seems possible to round up this academic year digitally. ’But I’m worried for the upcoming year’, says Kleemans, ’it is more difficult to provide high-quality education online.’

To this she adds that the lack of non-verbal communication is a problem. Not only because of didactics, but also to get an idea how students are doing mentally. Around 3 per cent of the students have dropped out during the last period, knows Han van Krieken. ’And the student psychologists are hearing more about problems with stress and uncertainty.’

Four out of five young researchers are less productive

Because of that, she is happy to hear the accounts of law-docent Tans who tells about testing 700 students. Without webcam and instead, in order to prevent fraud, with multiple exam versions and changed question order.

Contract renewal

Not only students, but also researchers are facing problems, the minister hears during the second part of her digital work visit. PhD students Martyna Chruslinska (Faculty of Science) and Charan van Krevel (Nijmegen School of Management) are illustrating how research projects are being delayed, because experiments can’t go through. Four out of five young researchers are less productive, found a campus-wide study in Nijmegen, according to Van Krevel. And 60 per cent report to have asked for a contract renewal, in order to finish of their projects.

The minister says to be glad that room has been made for this in the CAO agreement between universities and unions on Tuesday. The plan is that universities are going to use 0.45 per cent of their budgets in order to, for example, renew temporary employment contracts. ’For the short term’, says vice-president Wilma de Koning, who had been present at the negotiations, ’we have made money available for researchers who are now facing delay. But we can’t solve the long term consequences.’

’We are trying to figure it out’

Van Engelshoven is currently looking at regulations for the distant future. ’We are trying to figure it out’, she explains, ’together with the Jonge Akademie (from the KNAW, red.) and the NWO, but also the European Commission.’ That delayed projects can be extended is good, but it needs funding, she contrasts dryly.

More than medical expertise alone

When asked by Vox whether she will argue for more money in cabinet, the minister answered that she has long been in favour of more funding for higher education and research. ’The current crisis and the important role that research is playing in it, has only strengthened by stance. We, the cabinet, also think that we need more than medical expertise alone to face this. Think of behavioural scientists and economists.’

This is good to know, determines Wigboldus pleased. ’As a general university, we would like to solve problems with an interdisciplinary approach.’ And the crisis is emphasising the importance of free research, he says. ’Through that, people are learning how to deal with a context (for example an unexpected pandemic, red.) that hasn’t been encountered before.’

Soon, the university will publish a ’roadmap’ on how the campus will slowly come back from lockdown, as recently announced by the university. This way, the minister will possibly be able to see the – hopefully completed – Maria Montessori building live the next time she pays a work visit to campus.

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