Current second-year students started their programmes during lockdown and never experienced an introduction period. Many of them are still living with their parents and are also less keen to join a student association. According to Van Krieken, one student leader said, “In many ways they are still high school students. The play football at the same club and hang out with their old school friends.”

Free biscuits

Geert ten Dam, president of the University of Amsterdam’s executive board, and Arthur Mol, chair of Wageningen University & Research, are familiar with this problem. The universities say they are doing their best to get these students back to campus, even offering free coffee and biscuits, and additional activities organised by the student association. In some cases, they have even reverted to required attendance.

Another problem concerns the learning process itself, Ten Dam reveals. Learning is about more than simply earning credits. “There has also been an adverse effect on the quality of the learning process, on what we call ‘deep understanding’ or ‘deep learning’, because that’s something you achieve through interaction. It remains very much an open question how that will play out in future.”

Fewer credits

But academic achievement has also been impacted. Pieter Duisenberg, president of the umbrella organisation Universities of the Netherlands, shares some statistics and points out the number of students who earned relatively few credits during the coronavirus crisis.

In the first year of the crisis (spring 2020), universities postponed binding recommendations on continuation of studies and allowed all students to progress to the second year of their programme. They then proceeded to lower the number of credits required for a positive recommendation in the subsequent two years. This intervention mainly had an effect on borderline cases.

There are some students who take the standard required for a positive recommendation as their benchmark, the universities observe. These students do just enough to obtain a positive recommendation and pretty much switch off for the rest of the year. So when the standard was lowered, this group did even less. “I think we all have a good idea how this works”, Duisenberg says.

But what will happen to those students now? There’s the rub. Some of them are still earning fewer credits than they should and others will end up dropping out after all.

Mission impossible

At the University of Amsterdam, for example, a relatively high number of students entered second year in 2019/2020 with less than 30 of the required 60 credits under their belts. Half of those students ended up dropping out at a later stage. “If you fall well short of the credit requirement in your first year, it becomes mission impossible”, Geert ten Dam explains.

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam is seeing a similar pattern. In a normal year, 20 percent of students who scraped into the next year of their studies with fewer than 42 credits would end up dropping out. During the pandemic that number jumped to 30 percent.

Big worry

The aim of the binding recommendation on the continuation of studies is to make it clear to certain students that they would be better off studying something else. But the leniency shown during the coronavirus crisis means that some students only discovered this in their third year, Rector Van Krieken of Radboud University observes. “That creates a big worry for us. It’s better to take that decision after one year than to realise that you’ve been studying for three years with nothing to show for it.”

These observations on academic achievement in combination with reports on problems affecting student well-being and study behaviour all lead to the same conclusion, Duisenberg believes: “The coronavirus crisis is not over by any means. We are now dealing with the aftermath.”

Incidentally, the universities are not alone in facing this problem, Het Parool reports. Universities of applied sciences and vocational colleges are dealing with a similar situation. The newspaper article notes that it’s also having an impact on those students who are attending classes: they become demotivated by the almost empty classrooms.

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