Ten years ago, Erasmus University introduced the ‘nominaal = normaal’ (N=N) system, whose name roughly translates as ‘finish within the published time’. Since then, EUR has insisted that first-year students pass all their first-year exams and so obtain the requisite 60 credits. Before N=N was implemented, they only needed to obtain 40 credits in order to be allowed to move on to Year 2. Ever since the system was implemented, more students have successfully completed all their first-year exams, Stegers-Jager and Woltman wrote previously on ScienceGuide. However, that is as far as the positive impact goes, as Stegers-Jager and Woltman recently found in a study conducted at the Faculty of Medicine.

Minister for Education Ingrid van Engelshoven stated as far back as 2018 that she no longer wanted universities to require their first-year students to pass all their exams in Year 1. At the time, the Lower House voted against Van Engelshoven’s proposal. Two years later, the Lower House came to support a temporary relaxation of the requirements, with a majority of MPs stating that the requirements should not be too strict during the pandemic. The universities were not in favour of a nation-wide leniency scheme, but gave in in January.


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Impose high standards

Lowering the high standards in corona time is something else, but what Stegers-Jager and Woltman do not want is to lower the requirements in Rotterdam in general. “We have students who made a conscious decision to study at EUR precisely because we impose such a high standard on our students,” says Woltman, a lecturer who also happens to be the programme director of the Bachelor’s degree in Medicine. “But high standards should not be directly related to the bsa. We’d like to achieve two things: making sure that we end up with a group of students whose interests, level of commitment and potential are suited to the degree programme, and encouraging students to pass all their exams in one go so as to get more students to get their degrees.” The two lecturers feel that these should be two separate goals. However, in its current form, the bsa is used to help the university achieve both goals at once. “The bsa was introduced to help students find the right degree programme for them. It was not introduced to get more people to successfully complete their degree programmes,” says Stegers-Jager.

The requirements for first-year students are strict. If freshers do not obtain 60 credits in one year, they are asked to leave the degree programme. “If you give students a bar they have to jump over, they will work towards getting over that bar. And the next year they will be far less productive, because there are no more requirements and the students have regained their freedom”, says Woltman. “Moreover, the requirements for first-year students are so strict that they have unwelcome side effects”, says Stegers-Jager. One of the side effects is an increase in stress, as Stegers-Jager and Woltman have shown in previous research. “If you fall just short of meeting the requirements, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unsuited to the degree programme”, Woltman adds.

The two researchers would much rather see universities make it attractive for students to get all the credits they need than reject them if they fall just short of meeting the strict requirements. For instance, many departments allow their students to compensate for some fail marks with high marks in other subjects. In those systems, a high mark cancels out a low mark. “Rules like that provide students with an incentive to work hard, for their own good”, says Woltman.

More personal attention

So if they are not seeking to abolish the system that requires students to finish their degree programmes in the published time, what exactly are Stegers-Jager en Woltman seeking to achieve? More research on the long-term effects of the bsa and the impact of strict requirements on various sub-groups of students. PhD student Vera Broks is currently conducting research on that subject at the Faculty of Medicine. Medical students are already exempt from the N=N rule, in that first-year med students only have to obtain 45 credits to be allowed to stay on. An exception was made for them, says Woltman, because of the kind of students the Faculty of Medicine tends to attract. “Our students are highly motivated to begin with”, says Woltman. Due to the strict admission requirements, medical students have to show more dedication than other students, even before they embark on their degree programmes. “For instance, we don’t need to work on goal setting (like students attending the Rotterdam School of Management – ed.). Our students want to become doctors, and attending medical school is the only way to do that.” However, since all degree programmes are different, Stegers-Jager and Woltman would like to see different studies conducted for different degree programmes.

In addition, Stegers-Jager and Woltman are hugely in favour of more personal attention for students. “We owe students our help and guidance, even if they are not right for their degree programmes”, says Stegers-Jager. “Such exit support can help students make the decision to quit and seek a suitable alternative. Students are young when they first get here. Most of them are only eighteen, or even younger.” Students should be stimulated to work hard, but at the same time we should give them enough time to adjust, say the two lecturers. “If you give them personal attention, you can see whether students are committed and whether they are right for the degree programme. Personalised guidance can help us allow as many students as possible to finish their degree programmes within the published time, which is what a department’s guiding principle should be”, says Stegers-Jager.

The goal, Stegers-Jager and Woltman feel, should be to get students into a degree programme that suits them. After all, that will benefit both the university and the students.