‘The minister is just shifting the problem’

DUB panel is unanimous: Relaxing the binding study advice is a bad plan

DUB panel: BSA Foto: DUB
Foto: DUB

If minister Dijkgraaf gets his way, students in the first year will only need to obtain a minimum of 30 credits to receive a positive binding study advice (bsa). They can only move on to the second year with a positive bsa.

That minimum is currently 45 credits in Utrecht, which means students have to pass six out of eight courses.

The relaxation of the bsa is meant to have a positive effect on student wellbeing; after all, they deal with a lot of new things in their first year. Students will have to ensure that they obtain at least 60 credits (ECTS) within two years.

Student unions ISO and LSVb are enthusiastic. But universities fear incremental study delays for students, and higher workloads for lecturers, they wrote in an opinion piece in newspaper De Telegraaf. Moreover, they claim students don’t experience the current bsa as an issue at all.

Reason enough to present the issue to our DUB panel. We asked them to respond to the following statement:

Relaxing the bsa rules is a good plan

The responses point in a single direction: the minister shouldn’t touch the bsa rules. The current bsa policy in Utrecht is, according to students and employees in our DUB panel, very reasonable.

'Students will still drop out, just at a later stage'

Multiple panel members who respond to our statement mainly see lowering the norm as a way to shift the problem rather than solve it.

Kimberly Naber, researcher Intercultural Communication, writes: “Maybe more students will pass their first year. But those same students might struggle all the more in the next year, when they have to pass classes from year 2 as well as from year 1. That’s also stressful.”

City geographer Irina van Aalst states: “Lowering the bsa will lead to procrastination, making it much harder for students to catch up to speed with any delays they have when they do move on to the next year. There’s a risk that they will still drop out, but later in their studies. That isn’t good for anyone; not for students and not for lecturers.”

‘Too many students attend university who can’t actually handle the level of it’’

Master’s student of Urban & Economic Geography Marte Vroom also feels as though relaxed bsa rules equal nothing more than a temporary reprieve.

She thinks there are too many students who aren’t actually interested in academic education, and for many, the educational level is too high. “If you only manage to scrape together 60 credits in two years, you’ve got a big problem. There’s a big chance that study delay will only increase.”

Sterre van Wierst, Master’s student of Cancer, Stem Cells & Developmental Studies, says the outside world often doesn’t realise that obtaining study credits isn’t a huge achievement. With a 5.5 and a resit or fix opportunity, that threshold is ‘reasonable’.

“Of course, sometimes you can fail an exam. That’s why you have to get 45 ECTS in your first year at the UU, and not all 60, like in some other schools. In special cases, there are plenty of alternatives, like unenrolling before February 1, or asking for a bsa extension.”

'Having to obtain credits makes me study harder'

Some panel members also point out that a higher bsa works as a motivator.

Irina van Aalst: “My experience is that strict deadlines bring more clarity for students (‘big stick’) and that more ‘freedom’ just leads to postponing submissions, and eventually causing more stress.”

Chris Bil, Master’s student of Earth Sciences, says: “The ministry’s proposal just encourages people who need deadlines and consequences (which is probably all students) to only obtain 30 ECTS, when they would normally be able to easily obtain 45 ECTS.”

Levi Bierhuizen started his studies in Psychology this year: “The bsa motivates me to obtain enough credits. That also makes me participate more actively in courses. That way, as a student, you find out more quickly whether a study programme is the right fit for you.”

‘Lowering the bsa is curling policy’

Panel members emphasise that the bsa also teaches students to take their own studies and achievements seriously.  

Cultural Geographer Bouke van Gorp: “In the minister’s explanation, he talked about ‘getting used to things’, including living in student housing. Unfortunately, most students can’t find housing, or can’t afford the high rents. And many first-year students want to wait and see, first. At the start of this academic year, the overwhelming majority of students still lived at home. One thing they do have to get used to is taking responsibility for their own actions and studies. And in that case, setting the bar at 30 obtained credits is not a motivator.”

Pim van Achthoven, law student at the Utrecht Law College, says: “Of course I won’t say that studying is all you should be doing in your college years, but it should definitely be one of the priorities. Significantly lowering the bsa seems like a curling policy, in which students shouldn’t be trained for the harsh world anymore, and all students – regardless of whether they can handle any sort of pressure – should get a university or university of applied sciences degree.”

‘It’s demotivating to have to work together with someone who didn’t pass an introductory course’

Another point of attention is the quality of second-year courses when many students fail their first-year courses. psychology student Levi Bierhuizen says: “I think it would be very demotivating to have to work with a student who hasn’t passed an introductory course, or is working on repeating other courses.”

Bouke van Gorp thinks the minister has quite casually dropped the responsibility for this issue in the laps of the study programmes. “If a student has only passed half of their year-one courses, what can they do in year two? Courses sometimes have registration requirements, because of continuous learning tracks, or they assume a certain amount of prior knowledge.”

Educational scientist Casper Hulshof concludes that there are multiple reasons why the bsa can be in the students’ best interest. He’s a proponent of a proposal created by Dutch universities to let each programme decide for themselves how they handle the bsa. Hulshof is annoyed with the “Pavlovian response” of student union ISO. “As though each standard is automatically to the disadvantage of students.”

Internship coordinator Bart Mijland also thinks each programme should be able to decide their own bsa standard: “Lecturers, policy officers and students should be able to speak in all honesty about the pros and the cons. Don’t let the conversation be about financial yield, but rather about a balance, in which all involved parties are supported and encouraged.”

'Perhaps we can look at types of exams that require less time'

The panel members, then, don’t see a relaxation of the bsa standard as a solution to issues with student wellbeing; on the contrary. Still, they stress that the psychological issues students deal with do demand attention.

But Cultural Geographer Bouke van Gorp is missing an analysis of the problem. “Why are students experiencing so much stress? Is it the study programme, or is it a combination of expectations and activities next to studies, and social media?

“Perhaps we can look at types of exams that require less time,” proposes researcher Kimberly Naber. “Maybe we can lower students’ workloads that way.”

Internship coordinator Bart Mijland states that no matter what, there needs to be room for students and employees who don’t meet the established standards due to illness, neurodivergence, or other serious reasons. “Learning to study within the context of your life isn’t always easy. That has to be supported as much as possible, by both institutions and the government. (…) It’s about more than achievements, credits, and grades. Independent guidance by career counsellors, wellbeing officers and study advisors can help.”

Chris Bil, student of Earth Sciences, thinks the university should inform students more and better about the possibility of a bsa extension when someone’s not doing well. “And then have that be something that’s easy to do, without too much bureaucratic hassle.”

Master’s student Sterre van Wierst has a different conclusion: “The minister’s plan is a response to students who say they feel pressure to perform. That’s a valid concern. But perhaps students shouldn’t want to perform in a programme they don’t have the talents for.”

DUB panel
Tags: dub-panel | bsa