University council member Bram Heesen
Bram Heesen Image credit: Own photo

Academic degree programmes have three purposes 1: qualification, socialisation and subjectification. Firstly, universities must ensure that their students are qualified to hold certain professions. After completing their degree programmes, students must have skills that can be usefully applied outside academia. Secondly, universities are expected to socialise their students, e.g. in the sense that students must be able to communicate their findings to others. Thirdly, universities must enable subjectification, i.e. grant students the opportunity to become subjects able to take a stand in complicated social matters.

Unlike the two other purposes of academic degree programmes, qualification is being served well during the pandemic. Scientific theories do not have to be explained in lecture theatres; they can be explained every bit as well online. Likewise, students are perfectly able to do their independent study at the kitchen table, rather than in the University Library. If anything, this period has shown us that there are useful online applications that will continue to create added value

However, as far as socialisation is concerned, students have come to a complete standstill. Although universities mainly serve as facilitators in this regard, socialisation in and of itself is not part of their job description. After all, students mainly socialise outside lecture rooms. They do so while having a cup of coffee during the break in a two-hour lecture, at the drinks session held after the Erasmus Recruitment Days or while giving a presentation to their fellow students. This is a very different experience from having a lonesome cup of coffee at your own home, attending a drinks session on Zoom or giving an online presentation where most of your fellow students will be focusing on making sure they understand the subject matter at hand.

In addition, students are not getting the subjectification they need. Debates get a huge boost from in-person interaction. Before the pandemic, students would occasionally have heated debates during seminars. Online discussions have proven a lot less conducive to debate. Questions asked on Zoom are often met with deafening silence. Before the pandemic, EUR hosted major events, such as the EFR election debate. Attending such debates in person teaches students to take a stand in complicated social situations. Moreover, it enables them to ask prominent persons hard-hitting questions. However, the current situation only allows for TV debates, where politicians perform a show of their own, while students log off after a while to watch Netflix instead.

Since students are not able to grow as they did before the pandemic, they are losing motivation. We all find ourselves in monotonous environments, devoid of inspiration. As a result, many students are resorting to easy entertainment, the nature of which differs from one student to the next. Some students spend all their days gaming on their PlayStations or Xboxes. Others are taking more drugs. Although these activities are quite different from each other, they do all have one thing in common: they are pastimes from which students will not benefit in the long run.

The pandemic has caused many students’ lives to grind to a halt. They are stopped from growing in precisely those areas where universities are supposed to serve as facilitators. In this way, students are losing valuable years. They will have a hard time making up for lost time while all their classes are being taught online. For this reason, the university should do everything in its power to open its doors again, in a responsible manner, and make sure that students can enjoy all the extracurricular activities that universities are expected to facilitate indirectly. So bring on the additional walking routes, protective nose sprays, outdoor events, smartly used rooms and rapid tests!

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  1. As outlined by teaching philosophers Liesbeth Noordergraaf and Julien Kloeg ↩︎