The university has established a ‘1.5-m working group’ to brainstorm about the possible reopening of the campus. The working group’s plans are not yet known, but the following recommendations are to be expected: from now on no hugs as greeting and no handshakes. Walking routes will probably be established on campus; expect a lot of plexiglass in the canteens and strict rules for celebrating the end of the crisis in the half-empty In de Smitse cafe. And it’s likely that the university will at least have to keep a good eye on student, study and sports associations, as there will be regular clashes between student life and the 1.5-m society.
Things are likely to be more even complicated education-wise on the busy campus. Lecture halls will be much emptier with, for instance, two free spaces between students. Online education will be standard for many study programmes. And the number of study areas in the University Library and Polak building will have to be reduced drastically, while people have already been complaining about the lack of space on campus for some time. By now we all know that it will not be a case of business as usual.
In the meantime, the university is busy recruiting students for next year via digital routes. There seems to be enough enthusiasm among Dutch students, but it will prove much more difficult to attract international students to Europe. Experts are therefore expecting a significant dip in student mobility throughout Europe, not only in the coming academic year but over a longer period, due to the economic consequences of the crisis. For now the key question is: can international students travel to the Netherlands and, if so, when? And if not, what is the incentive for an international on an exchange costing thousands of euros in tuition fees only to study online for at least the first months, as Rutger Engels proposed on Tuesday on Erasmus TV? That does somewhat diminish the prized experience And what do you do with the students that are already here? For a level playing field, these students should also be allowed to follow lectures from home.
Expensive exchange from home
And if the same number of students arrive as in previous years, the question remains whether the measures leave enough space on campus. The University Council has been asking the Executive Board about the university’s maximum capacity for years, but is yet to receive an answer. This maximum never seems to be reached: in October, the university passed the ‘magic’ number of 30,000 students, while in 2015 there were just 24,000. The 1.5-m university may mean that the new maximum capacity of campus Woudestein will be a third of what it once was.
Extreme negative budget
And then there’s still the 2020-2021 budget hanging like a huge question mark over the campus. After all, university financing depends largely on the number of students on campus. Because the university has continued to budget too carefully in recent years and has funds left over, this year, following pressure from the University Council, there is an extreme negative budget: no fewer than 26.8 million euro. In hindsight, you could ask the question as to whether this was wise. Moreover, during the crisis a lot of extra funds have been spent on such things as digitisation, and all kinds of projects are subject to delays. Will the university be able to survive if, due to travel restrictions, there are, in a worst-case scenario, thousands fewer international students on campus? The answer is certainly yes, but probably not without significant cutbacks or a huge additional contribution from the national government.
A compromise could be that all students study at home as far as possible and follow the education from home; this will free up space for the people who have to be on campus. Even examinations can take place easily from home with good proctoring software and good privacy safeguards. But those examinations where this is not possible, for instance the large bachelor examinations from the Rotterdam School of Management and the Erasmus School of Economics, do form a challenge. The student numbers are so high that they won’t fit easily in the Van der Goot building examination halls if you need to adhere to the 1.5-metre distance. On the other hand, if you switch to labour-intensive take-home examinations, you’ll push the lecturers marking these over the edge. And Ahoy won’t be available for every examination.
At the same time, pressure is increasing from various angles. Students are demanding that their studies progress without delay, with examinations, but without privacy violations. Lecturers are starting to suffer from the workload associated with reformed curricula and modified examinations, and are speaking out. The loyalty between faculties is also under pressure, as some do have sufficient funds to extend temporary contracts, while others don’t.
The Executive Board will need to weigh all these interests carefully. Recruiting fewer students will result in considerable financial problems, with potentially high consequences for staff on temporary contracts. Recruiting more (or the same as previous years) will create health risks. Studying at home is not possible in all situations and will lead to additional stress among both students and lecturers. So, it’s going to be a really complicated juggling act.