In January 2016, the findings in the N=N report issued by research institute Risbo were discussed in the University Council’s ERS (Education, Research and Student Affairs) Committee. The report – published in July 2015 – included a few pieces of good news for Erasmus University.
Yes: the number of EUR students who round off their propaedeutic year within one year had increased considerably. And not just in the first year following the policy’s implementation at ESE, ESL, ESHCC, iBMG and RSM (2012), but also the next year. And no: the intake of first-year students did not fall after N=N’s introduction – in fact, it had risen slightly.
However, the big question that formed the point of departure for the report was what the long-term effects are of N=N’s implementation. In other words: do students also round off their degree programme more quickly if they learn the importance of passing everything on schedule in their first year?
‘This is possibly due to students spending more time on other matters in their second year – extracurricular activities, for example’
The answer varies from programme to programme. After the introduction of N=N, students in the Economics, Business Economics and Fiscal Economics programmes, the international bachelor Economics and Business Economics, History and the various Law degree programmes had earned more credits at the end of their second year than before. However, this was not the case in other programmes. “This is possibly due to students spending more time on other matters in their second year – extracurricular activities, for example,” says Gerard Baars, Managing Director of Risbo and one of the authors of the report. Another possible explanation is the so-called ‘post-BSA dip’: in their second year, students may slacken the reins a bit after satisfying the strict requirements set for them in the propaedeutic year. The necessity of passing everything in one go may not be felt so acutely if you no longer feel the threat of being sent down. It is important to note, however, that these possible explanations are merely hypotheses and are not yet supported by empirical data.”
To ‘sugar the pill’ for students after introducing a 60-credit BSA norm in the first year and limiting the number of re-sits, Erasmus University has adopted a compensation scheme. This gives students the opportunity to compensate for one or more ‘insufficient’ marks with higher marks in other subjects. This means that, in addition to the stricter requirements set for students, the propaedeutic year remains quite feasible for the students – provided they show sufficient commitment to their studies. This compensation scheme subsequently received criticism from a number of corners, including the University Council and the Dutch Student Union (LSVb). Critics feared a decline in quality. So far, this fear appears unfounded, however – based on the initial findings of the Risbo study, at least. In most degree programmes, over half the students weren’t even required to compensate for one 5 in the first year of their study.
‘It’s not very likely to see a large group of students who compensate for a large number of 5s in their first year’
And when all programmes are taken together, only a very small percentage of the students compensate more than two 5s with higher marks for other subjects in the first year. This is hardly surprising, according to Gerard Baars: “It’s not very likely to see a large group of students who compensate for a large number of 5s in their first year. After all, this would mean that they have to score a 7 or higher in a whole bunch of other subjects. Of course, this is possible in theory, but in practice, you hardly see this occurring.”
Risbo advises against the unrestricted compensation of ‘insufficient’ marks. The study compared students who only earned ‘pass’ marks in their first year with students who compensated for one, two or more ‘insufficient’ marks. What turned out? In nine out of the fourteen reviewed degree programmes, by the end of the second year, students who compensate for one or more ‘insufficient’ marks in their propaedeutic year prove to have earned fewer ECTS credits than fellow students who scored pass marks across the board.
Still: generally speaking, students who compensate for one or more 5s in the first year tend to have earned a respectable number of credits two years into their study. “Based on the currently available data regarding the longer-term effects of the compensation scheme, one could consider adopting a maximum of two ‘insufficient’ marks that can be compensated for in the first year for all degree programmes. This is in consideration of the fact that the group of students who compensate for three or more 5s is relatively small, and that this group also shows the least academic progress after two years of study,” says Baars.
Differences between faculties
Risbo is neither prepared nor able to draw hard conclusions regarding the success of the N=N measure. Indeed, this would be difficult on the basis of the data available at this point. For example, it is not yet clear which impact the introduction of N=N has had on the percentage of students who round the bachelor programme within the nominal term (in other words, three years with a maximum extension of one year). We are still waiting for the relevant data.
In addition, it is difficult to compare the period before and after the introduction of N=N, when so much has changed in the time being, and there are furthermore differences in how individual faculties implement the scheme in practice. For example, in 2012, Erasmus School of Law switched to an entirely new teaching method. The faculty replaced the old system of tutorials and lectures with problem-oriented education.
And then, there are the differences in how faculties give shape to the N=N scheme. At Erasmus School of Economics, for example, students are allowed to compensate for a maximum of three 5s and resit a maximum of three examinations per year (provided they took the first examination and attended at least 70% of the practicals), while Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication allows students to compensate for two 5s with a minimum mark of 7 and to resit a maximum of three written examinations. Law students, on the other hand, are allowed to compensate as many ‘insufficient’ marks as they please – as long as their average score is at least 6 out of 10 – while they are only allowed to resit two examinations. And then there’s the Institute of Health Policy & Management. Per cluster, students here are allowed to compensate for one subject (minimum of 4.5) and resit two examinations. And finally, students enrolled at Rotterdam School of Management are permitted to compensate for a maximum of one 5 with two 7s or one 8 or higher, and are allowed to resit no more than four examinations.
Students at other universities obtain their bachelor degree sooner than in the past
If N=N is the key cause of the improvement of EUR students’ success rate, the results in Rotterdam need to differ significantly from those at other universities that have not adopted the N=N scheme. This is not the case, however. Here too, students obtain their bachelor degree sooner than in the past, according to a statement issued last year by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). According to VSNU, the improvement in study success can primarily be attributed to the introduction of the ‘harde knip’ (‘hard cut’) rule, which states that students need to obtain a full bachelor’s degree before they can start a master’s programme. The implementation of this rule has also been included in the present study. While the ‘harde knip’ may be the key factor, the introduction of the binding study advice at other universities has also had an effect on students’ motivation. The binding study advice requires students to earn a specific number of ECTS credits in the first year. This number varies from university to university. For example, students at Maastricht University need to earn a minimum of 42 credits, and students at Delft University of Technology need to obtain at least 45. And even when students aren’t afraid of being sent down, since the introduction of the student loan system they still put in more work due to the financial consequences of falling behind on one’s studies.
Here to stay
Weighing all the pros and cons, it seems a bit facile to attribute all the positive developments at EUR to N=N. And to go on to implement the N=N rule (or at the very least, a binding study advice) for each year of the programme. Leiden University is currently experimenting with precisely such a measure. In the Dutch House of Representatives, a majority of the MPS have already indicated that they are not in favour of such a measure. In other words, while students can heave a sigh of relief, one other thing is also sure: N=N is here to stay.
Risbo is an independent research institute that focuses on the fields of educational issues, social issues and innovations in the public domain. The institute is affiliated with Erasmus University Rotterdam’s Faculty of Social Sciences.