Besides the EUR’s facility services and security staff, for example, who have remained on the otherwise empty campus over the past few months, the Executive Board had gotten into the habit of spending at least one day a week at Woudestein. In recent months, the chair has lobbied the city and ministry for in-person education and more space. “The captains should remain on board the ship.”

Since last Monday, students have been allowed to attend lectures one day a week again. Brinksma was back at Woudestein on Wednesday and it already felt ‘a lot livelier’. “The pavilion is up and running, people are eating at the tables, and I see students walking around again. A positive step in the right direction.” But he also thinks: “It is still a long way off from being fully reopened.”

“What does that one day a week actually mean in practice at Erasmus University?

“It varies depending on the faculty, the field of study and even the academic year. The precise arrangements are organised by faculty since they know what’s best. Based on my impressions last Wednesday, I think it’s about as busy as it was just before the closure in mid-December.”

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As chair of the Executive Board, what is your role in the reopening?

“As universities within the framework of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), we exerted a considerable amount of pressure on the minister to make the reopening possible. We saw the consequences for the students, not only in terms of academic course work, but also socially. This was untenable and as such, became unacceptable. Alongside the political developments at a national level, we as the executive board on the Crisis Management Team are keeping an eye on how the reopening is unfolding. I have just come from a meeting with them. For the time being, things are going well.”

 You say the situation was untenable. What did you notice?

“I saw students languishing away, confined to a few square metres of their rooms because they couldn’t do anything. They couldn’t go to a student club; they were getting square eyes from their education and they were unable to meet up with anyone. These factors weighed heavily in our appeal to the minister.”

Some faculties say that it is difficult to give all students in-person education one day per week, mainly due to the shortage of space. Do you recognise this and is there anything you can do about it?

“Yes, we see that since the one-and-a-half-metre limit is still being enforced, we can only use 20 to 30 per cent of the available space. That’s why we are also looking at spaces off campus, especially for in-person examinations, also because we no longer need to proctor them then. We might be able to arrange extra study areas this way too. Talks have been underway with Luxor and Ahoy for some time now. The measures imposed by The Hague now permit that, although you do see that the Safety Region is still very cautious, more so than The Hague.”

Why are they being so cautious?

“They’re constantly weighing up the options between freedom and the risk of infection. The Safety Region wants to exercise caution in areas that could later be identified as infection hotspots. Then you’d have some explaining to do. Right now, they have to explain why they are not making more space available.”

Ed Brinksma, voorzitter van het CvB
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

The willingness of students to be tested before going to lectures is low, according to one of the findings of a survey done by EM. Does this worry you?

“Yes. On the other hand, that kind of survey is not the gold standard of reliability. Look at how the figures fluctuate in the willingness to be vaccinated.  That also very much depends on what’s going on in the news at the time, for example, about side effects. “But it is definitely a challenge to persuade as many students as possible to get tested. Everyone should take personal responsibility to make sure that they don’t spread corona among their coworkers, students and teachers.”

How do you plan to go about that?

“I am never in favour of enforcing something, I always think that’s a bad idea. But we must present self-testing in such a way that it is seen as a moral duty to the community. If everyone says: ‘I won’t do it, you’re not offering anything in return,’ in no time, no one will do it. My take on this is that we have to take responsibility without forcing anyone to do it. If the majority of the students do go ahead, let’s say 80 percent, then you have already gained a great deal.”

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There is a law in the works to make self-testing compulsory. How would you deal with that if the law were enacted?

“Making something compulsory as a government is a very principled point of law. I don’t expect the law to be passed that quickly and I also hear from lawyers that there are a lots of snags and hitches involved. But if the law were passed, a thorough debate will have preceded it and all the pros and cons will have been weighed. I do believe that parliament must bear full responsibility for the law if it does pass, because of that very weighty principle, and shouldn’t leave it up to entities like this university to decide whether or not to make something mandatory.”

Several students cite the free provision of tests as a condition for testing themselves. How is the distribution being managed at the moment?

“That is being done via the IT organisation SURF. I’ve just checked with them and they say it will be up and running from the beginning of May, but I don’t dare pinpoint an exact date for that. After all, it is a gigantic operation. We are very pleased that it is being organised centrally and that we, as a university, don’t have to do it ourselves.”

Not every teacher is eager to teach on campus again. What is the policy if someone does not want to?

“First of all, a large majority of faculty do want in-person education. And for those who do not want to do it, well, we understand that. That’s the other side of the coin when there’s a voluntary choice for taking tests. There are also students who prefer not to have a cotton bud stuck up their nose. And if you give the student that latitude, then you can’t very well force a teacher to teach.”

Rotterdam educational institutions were supposed to conduct a self-test pilot to examine how students would behave after a test. This should have started already. Why hasn’t it happened yet?

“We have linked our pilot to scientific research because we really want to learn something from it – noblesse oblige. But that means that the pilot is subject to a ruling by the independent Medical Ethics Review Committee. They had a few extra questions that we needed to answer. I hope it will quickly move forward.”

Ed Brinksma, voorzitter van het CvB
Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Before we know it, we will have all been vaccinated.

He laughs. “As far as vaccinations are concerned, the sooner the better. If that creates problems for the pilot, so be it. But the pilot can be useful even with vaccinations in the offing. We can learn a lot from that with a view to the future when we might be affected by other variants or viruses.”

We have been talking mostly about students. What about the the staff? Which – to use a press conference word – ‘perspective’ can you offer them?

“We are reliant on the central government in that respect. At the moment, everyone is cautious. You have to have a good reason to work at your ‘normal’, or let’s say ‘original’, workplace. We have drawn up a step-by-step plan with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and are expecting to be able to study and work on campus again in September, albeit subject to conditions. Over the summer, the situation will shift again, partly due to the vaccinations. From ‘no, unless …’ to ‘yes, unless …'”

“But whatever happens, we can no longer go back to the old way of doing things. Everyone accepts that by now. If only because of the fact that the corona crisis has also changed us.”