A student who did not satisfy the requirements of the Nominal = Normal standard and was therefore told to leave her degree programme has initiated a lawsuit against the university. With the assistance of the legal support centre Landelijk Studenten Rechtsbureau, the claimant hopes to force the Board of Appeal for Higher Education (College van Beroep voor het Hoger Onderwijs, CBHO) to make a ruling of principle on this matter.

The N=N policy has been the subject of controversy ever since it was first introduced in 2012. Ousted students have contested the policy on more than one occasion. The office of lawyer Patrick Folsche, who will be counselling the student in the present case, has handled “at least a dozen” cases about N=N. Up to now, they have never led to a final ruling by the education judge. In a number of cases, the university agreed on a settlement before they were brought to court or it was determined that the student had faced exceptional circumstances (e.g. an illness or a death in the family) during the period in question. In such cases, the university may allow a student to continue in his or her programme despite failing to comply with the policy.

According to Folsche, the university has two basic approaches to reaching a settlement. “The first is to show leniency as to what can be considered exceptional circumstances at the preliminary stage of the student’s appeal against the negative study advice. This releases the student from his or her obligation to satisfy the N=N norm. The second tactic is to simply revoke the negative study advice if the student threatens to bring his or her case before the education judge.”

Focus on returns

A number of political parties are also highly critical of the policy. The local chapters of the youth wings of VVD, GroenLinks, ChristenUnie and PvdA have posted messages on Facebook confirming their opposition to the N=N policy. JOVD Rijnmond – the youth wing of VVD – believes that “high pressure of work in the first year of the programme discourages students to take on other activities besides their studies.” PvdA’s youth organisation De Jonge Socialisten calls it “an example of EUR’s focus on returns.”

In 2015, the most senior judge in education law already made a critical provisional statement (voorzieningenuitspraak) about N=N. This provisional judgement by the CBHO judge was intended to prevent the law student who brought the case from having to wait for a final ruling before resuming his studies. In this ruling, the judge wondered whether N=N, “in consideration of its objective and scope, sits comfortably with the legal requirement that a student may only be issued a negative study advice when he or she proves unsuited for the degree programme.” This case never resulted in a definite ruling, however: EUR settled with the claimant.

Retired judge: 'It isn’t correct as a criterion'

Ben Olivier, the education judge responsible for this critical assessment, has since retired. He still thinks Erasmus University’s N=N-policy leaves much to be desired. “It isn’t correct as a criterion. People are sent away as a result of this policy even though they are not unsuited. First-year students can hardly make any mistakes anymore due to the N=N policy. The fact that EUR pays extra attention to its first-year students does not change my overall opinion of N=N.”

Paul Zoontjens, Professor of Education Law at Tilburg University, tells us via email that he believes the system in Rotterdam is reasonable. “EUR’s explicit objective – if I understand correctly – is that as many students as possible complete their first year on time. This is an important goal in social and education terms, and can help to improve the quality of the university’s degree programmes.”

'Provisional statement is far from impressive'

Indeed, he finds the provisional statement made by the education judge in 2015 “far from impressive”. Zoontjes: “I don’t believe that you can call EUR’s points of departure unreasonable. EUR needs to be at liberty to determine which criteria lead to it issuing a negative BSA. It’s not just about [a student’s, eds.] suitability or unsuitability, as the CBHO suggested in 2015, but about his or her suitability or unsuitability within the criteria established by EUR as an institution.”

According to Zoontjens, it’s actually a good thing that a university establishes its own standards. “It’s relatively easy for affected students to continue their studies at a different university. It would only become a point of principle if all research universities and universities of applied sciences adopted EUR’s system.”

End of N=N

What’s the CBHO’s take on this matter? The court’s session is scheduled on 1 March, with a ruling following six weeks later. Should the judge find in the student’s favour, this would mean the end of the N=N-policy. This does not mean, however, that students who were sent away in the past can make claims based on the ruling. That’s because their 6-week time limit for lodging an appeal has since expired.

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