“I suffered from a burn-out in my thirties”, said Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven in a discussion with students about stress. “It was both a difficult and an instructive experience. I learned that you can’t be, and you don’t have to be, good at everything.” Student well-being is one of the themes the minister discussed during her visit to the Woudestein Campus.

The students become nervous in the moments just before the minister enters The Living Room. This living room is a place where students can relax, or just talk, when they’re feeling overwhelmed by stress caused by their studies or other factors. The students aren’t the least bit disturbed by the presence of a dozen EUR communication employees and ministry representatives who are closely monitoring the meeting. Once the discussion starts, the students are focused only on the topic at hand and they have a lot to say. “You’ll find study-related stress everywhere on campus”, says Milly Ssebudde of The US Space. “There’s a need for a place where you can talk about sensitive issues. Loneliness, racism, depression. It’s like a weight off your shoulders when you find someone to listen to you. You don’t feel like you’re alone anymore.”

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Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven discussing the topic ‘student welfare’ with students Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

Hopeful

All the students at the table agree there’s still a taboo surrounding saying you’re unhappy. “You have to excel, you have to be happy”, explains Extraordinary Life’s Adriana Mockovcakova. “It’s a big step to tell your friends that you’re not feeling good about yourself.”

The Minister acknowledges the importance of talking about your problems, based on her own experience with a burn-out. Van Engelshoven uses the word ‘hopeful’ to describe the student living room initiative. “The problems related to student well-being need to be taken seriously, but it’s a hopeful sign that no complicated interventions are needed to take action.”

‘BSA raises stress levels among students’

“What causes you to feel stress?” is what Van Engelshoven is wants to hear from the students. Finances and work pressure are the main causes of stress. “Just studying is no longer enough. You study full-time, but companies demand more: good grades, committee work, a board position”, says Magellaan van Rensbergen.

It doesn’t take long before the students start talking about the pressure caused by the binding study advice (BSA). We have the strictest BSA requirements in the Netherlands. All programmes require students to obtain all 60 credits in their first year. The only exception is the Medicine programme. “I think people underestimate how demanding this is”, says Nizar El Manouzi, a student member of the University Council. First-year students are so young, they’re actually still children.”

In September 2018 Van Engelshoven made clear she wasn’t a supporter of Rotterdam’s ‘nominal = normal’. In order to reduce the psychological pressure on first-year students, she wanted to institute legislation calling for a BSA with a maximum of 40 credits. But the Lower House did not vote this into law. A year and a half later, the Minister still doesn’t stand behind the system used in Rotterdam. “I hope universities will take a critical look at the BSA.”

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More personnel with a permanent contract

Van Engelshoven also spoke with HR staff and lecturers about work pressure and its impact on the quality of education. According to the unions, roughly a billion euro in ‘overdue financing’ is needed in academic education. On Monday, the Minister once again emphasised that “more funding is definitely needed”.

“But there are other steps we can take. The efforts made in teaching need to be recognised and appreciated.” The Minister was also concerned about the high number of temporary contracts. A recent survey revealed that many lecturers at EUR have a temporary contract. “I will also discuss this with the Executive Board, because there are supposed to be fewer flex contracts.

Sign of the times

After the discussion, the students are recovering from the tension. “I was so nervous, but if you’re passionate about the topic, it seems you can find the right words”, says a relieved Ssebudde. What the students will certainly remember is that the Minister supported the idea that it’s important that young people should be aware of their mental health. “If you’re aware of it now, there’s less chance of suffering a burn-out later on”, adds Van Rensbergen. The way the Minister spoke so candidly about her own burn-out is what the students appreciated the most. “I think she’s really cool”, concludes Ssebudde.

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