The working group has now published an ‘interim report’, which was presented this morning to the minister, who praised the group’s efforts thus far. This was followed by an online programme full of short conversations with students, lecturers and administrators – and a philosopher who offered insightful comments.
The coronavirus pandemic has of course thrown a spanner in the works for higher education, which might go some ways towards explaining the lack of progress on student wellbeing. For the moment, however, the working group is mainly focusing on ‘exploring support among administrators’ and exchanging best practices. The group’s various members have also agreed to improve the information provided to students.
But what about financial support for students who encounter problems in their personal lives which lead to study delays? This appears to be a more sensitive subject. “The working group shares best practices within the ambition to intensify financial support”, the report states.
“There are so many stakeholders in this working group that the report has really turned into a testament to compromise”, according to Dahran Çoban of the Dutch National Students’ Association (ISO), which is itself one of those stakeholders. Çoban recognises that the report’s wording may seem feeble in parts.
It therefore seems unlikely that the working group will bring about a major breakthrough. But a major breakthrough is exactly what we need, if we’re to believe Toske Andreoli.
In the online symposium surrounding the report’s publication, Andreoli – a philosopher and author of the book The Greatest Time of Your Life? – levelled a rather fundamental criticism against the way in which universities in particular deal with students who are experiencing problems. Her point is that these problems are not always individual. You can keep hiring student psychologists and teach all the mindfulness courses you want, Andreoli stated, but that leaves the root cause of the problems students experience unaddressed. “It’s not preventative,” she argued.
Andreoli believes that our education system should ensure that no one gets left behind, no matter the challenges they face in their personal lives. It’s especially important that someone notices it when a student doesn’t show up to class: “In adult life, that’s a given – if one of our colleagues doesn’t come to work, we check in with them. But we don’t do that with students.”
She also criticized the student loan system and the concept of a ‘binding recommendation of the continuation of studies’ (students being forced to drop out due to poor results). Andreoli believes these to be sources of stress, too. Rutger Engels, rector magnificus of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where students have one year to obtain all their first-year credits, denied this claim, asserting that it was not apparent from the data. He then quickly moved on to another subject.
So do the student loan system and forced drop-outs actually have an impact on student wellbeing? The working group’s interim report does not address these issues. “We’re definitely not happy about that”, says ISO president Çoban, “but we’re going to continue the dialogue. And I do think the working group is having a positive effect. It’s a bit of a buzzword, but exchanging ‘best practices’ when it comes to student wellbeing really does help.”
But meanwhile, what’s being done about the student loan system and forced drop-outs? Students will continue their fight on these issues, says Çoban, but through different political channels.