From 1 March, secondary schools and secondary vocational education will be permitted to reopen partially. However, if it were up to the government, university and university of applied sciences students would continue their education remotely for the time being. They are promising to review whether higher education can reopen ‘in a subsequent phase’, and have notified institutes of higher education to prepare for this eventuality.
Many parties took issue with this decision, which became clear during a major debate on the topic of the coronavirus crisis in the House of Representatives yesterday. Lilianne Ploumen (PvdA) believes the decisions are rather arbitrary. “So we are reopening massage parlours, but our universities and universities of applied sciences have to keep their doors firmly closed.”
Lilian Marijnissen (SP) also called into question the easing of the restrictions to benefit the economy. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to optimise any scope we have and let students and pupils get back to in-person education before we do anything else?”
Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) emphasised that his party has no intention of ‘throwing the doors of institutes of higher education wide open’. “But the relaxation that applies to secondary education should also apply here.” Gert-Jan Segers from the ChristenUnie party would mainly like to see extra attention for first-year students, ‘who have never even seen a professor or lecturer in person’.
Other MPs joined the chorus and D66, SGP and Partij voor de Dieren also urged for a faster reopening of higher education.
Ploumen asked the Prime Minister to explain the considerations that resulted in the decisions made by the government regarding the easing of coronavirus measures for the economy and higher education. There are plenty of options to take small steps, right? Why not allow students to go back to in-person education for a few hours a week, in conference centres for example. This option could have been considered six months ago.
Rutte replied that his fear is not that universities and universities of applied sciences do not have the capacity to organise this type of education in a safe and coronaproof manner. “The problem is that if you add it all up, all of those activities lead to more travel and this increases the risk of people getting too close to each other. Which will then result in an inevitable spread of the virus.”
In short, scope to relax the measures is limited and only small steps are possible. “We are doing something for education and also something for young people and sports”, he said. “We’re also taking some small steps for the economy. I think this is in line with what some of our colleagues would like to see, and that is to take smaller steps across the board.”
But the debate revealed that the House wanted more. The D66 and ChristenUnie parties submitted a motion asking the government to engage in talks with higher education about safety measures and a speedier partial reopening.
A joint motion by GroenLinks, PvdA, SP and PvdD asked for even more: “provide scope for socially-distanced teaching in higher education as quickly as possible, with the aim of allowing each and every student to go back to in-person education for a few hours a week.” The House will vote on the motions today.
Outgoing Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, Hugo de Jonge, highlighted the various pilots for rapid testing and self-testing that are currently underway in higher education. MPs wanted to know if these projects might help speed up the process.
De Jonge believes self-testing is the future. “Imagine self-tests as part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth in the morning.”
However, the Minister does not want to get ahead of himself and he explained that there are no current plans beyond pilot projects, because the self-tests have not been approved with a CE label yet. “There are a number of legal hurdles that we will need to overcome first.”