There’s never been a clear student welfare policy at EUR. That all changed this summer when the Rector asked Director of Student Affairs Joop Matthijsse to formulate a plan. For instance, there’ll be a student living room where students can drop in to chat to other students or counsellors.

The university will also be establishing an online healthcare programme to make students more aware of psychological problems and to teach them how to handle stress. And waiting lists to see the student psychologist will be a thing of the past through the appointment of additional psychologists.

Why does the university have a student welfare plan?

“I think we have a responsibility towards students, and not only for their education. These are mostly young people in a formative period in their lives and we need to be aware of this. Of course the responsibility for welfare lies first of all with the students themselves. But we have a responsibility too and I think we need to take this responsibility on board, for instance by teaching students how to handle stress.”

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You will be discussing the ‘student welfare’ theme at the opening of the academic year. Why?

“It’s something close to my heart. As researcher I’ve conducted research for many years into the welfare of young people and young adults. Before I came to Erasmus University, I worked at the Trimbos Institute, where we studied mental health, substance abuse treatment and social care.

“What struck me when I came to EUR was that mental health is also a huge theme here. 1 I thought: how amazing is it that the topic I’d focused on in my research has followed me in my new job? I threw myself into the topic and gave the assignment for the report.”

You have two daughters who are studying. Is that why it’s a familiar theme?

“It’s a reason I know full well that studying can be hard. I talk to them about how they handle pressure and the feeling that they have to do everything. The feeling that you not only need to keep up with your studies, but with all your social networks too, and that you need to do lots in addition to your studies. The student loan system also increases pressure on students. Because how can you ever repay that loan?

“Like many students, my daughters are real perfectionists. This has advantages, because it takes you places. But it’s also a danger, because when you’re too much of a perfectionist, it becomes a real burden. The university also needs to be aware of this. It’s no help to us if students drop out halfway through.”

How do you aim to prevent student dropout?

“We’ll need to do certain things differently. For instance, I’m a huge advocate of prevention. We need to reach students before they drop out or before things take a turn for the worse. We need an approach that enables us to prepare a large group of students in how to handle stress, how to handle the shit life throws at you and how to handle all those things that don’t go how you want them to go. That’s more important now than ever before.”

More important than ever before?

“This generation of young people has often been protected when they were growing up, but the big bad world is still out there. So how do you prepare yourself for it? You do this by learning resilience. And you only learn resilience by experiencing stress. Stress goes with the territory – you simply can’t be happy all the time. Happiness only exists if you also experience periods when you’re not that happy.”

“I think that this generation, more than ever, has the idea that you can achieve anything if you work hard. And that’s not entirely true. Even if I wanted to be the best singer in the world, my chances of becoming that are extremely small. It has nothing to do with my age and everything to do with my singing ability. If my parents had put all their efforts into developing my singing ability, then things wouldn’t have worked out well simply because that’s not where my talents lie. The world is only malleable to a certain extent.”

What else do you think people of this generation come up against?

“A very concrete example is that young adults increasingly have problems sleeping. This partly has to do with social media. People are on their phones long into the night. So sleep quality and duration are lower and that affects such things as concentration. I notice that too if I’ve had a few nights where I had difficulty sleeping.

“It would be good to give students information about this, if necessary via some digital tips and tricks. For instance, don’t keep your telephone in your bedroom and use an old-fashioned alarm clock instead.”

So you have an alarm clock at home?

“If I’m honest, I’m a bad example. But I do speak to people who leave their phones downstairs and I think it’s an excellent idea.”

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There were a few incidents involving sexual assault between students last year. The university is now setting up a central hotline for unacceptable behaviour. Do you know when that will be established?

“It’s definitely in the pipeline, but we still need to work out the details. So I can’t say right now.”

These cases also made it clear that the procedures regarding unacceptable behaviour are unclear, both for students and for contact persons, such as study advisers.

“I think that’s also a really important point, because it needs to be crystal clear for students who they can turn to if they have complaints. Students can refer themselves to the right body, but that wasn’t clear enough. However, I do think that the procedure is well organised at this university. There are trained confidential counsellors who people can approach, as well as the recently appointed ombudsperson. However, how we communicate about this needs to be improved so that students and staff are in no doubt about whom they can turn to.”

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If we have another chat in two years’ time, will a lot have changed?

“I particularly hope that we’ll have been able to make mental health a topic of discussion, because that’s always step one. We need to be mindful of the fact that it’s really not that strange to need to visit a psychologist, that it’s a very normal and natural part of life.

We’ll already have established some of the things from the plan – such as the living room. We’ll also have started making faster referrals. And we’ll also be working more intensively with Erasmus MC, so that we can be much quicker at referring students to the psychiatry department when they have serious problems and really need help. Other issues will take longer, but we’ve not drawn up and approved this plan to just put things on the back burner. That’s simply not going to happen.”

  1. In his first weeks at EUR, Engels received a letter from PhD students asking whether they could have their own psychologist. They have one now. ↩︎
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