UU president: ‘We want to avoid study delays as much as possible’

UU president Anton Pijpers: “We’re taking our responsibility in curbing the spread of this virus, and we’re saying: no one comes to work, unless.” Photo: DUB

When the number of corona-infected people increased sharply last week, UU president Anton Pijpers knew he’d have to prepare for even more extreme measures than the university had had to deal with thus far. These days, Pijpers spends all his time in crisis meetings. He’s also a member of the national crisis team of universities and the ministry, to coordinate tasks and learn from each other. In between those tasks, he spends as much time as possible on his regular work. It’s running the gauntlet, he says. He does have some experience with crises. During his time as Managing Director of Animal Health Services, he had to deal with the foot-and-mouth-disease and the avian flu. “I’m using that experience,” he says. “But this is quite a different level.”

How did you decide not to teach any physical classes anymore last Thursday?
“After prime minister Rutte held his press conference, we quickly came together. It was clear something was about to happen, so we were prepared. We checked to see how we would implement the measures at the UU. At first, it seemed as though the measures would only affect the large-scale lectures, but that was quickly followed by a letter to parliament by minister Bruins which went further than that. Our principle has been from the start that we want to ensure our education continues as much as possible.

“To make that happen, we’ve asked teachers how they would be able to successfully complete their courses without in-person education. The classes for block 3 are, for a large part, already done. How the teachers finish their blocks depends on the teacher. You can teach online, use chat groups of Skype, or find assignments that students can do at home. The tests do have to meet the quality requirements of the exam committee. We’ve asked teachers to let students know before Wednesday how they’d prefer to finish their course. And we, as university, can assist teachers in executing those plans. Educate-IT has a lot of expertise on digital education, and offers help to all teachers both within and outside of our university.”

Can you guarantee this even if the university has to stay closed for longer?
“The focus, right now, is on block 3. The new block starts April 20. That’s why we’ve said that there will be no face-to-face education until April 20. We don’t know what will be possible by then. We are, however, anticipating what to do if the university does have to remain closed for longer. The solution will be more complicated, but we’ll still discuss with our teachers to see if they could provide education in a responsible way without causing too many delays.”

The students in the university council said on Thursday afternoon that they felt it took too long before students were informed. Was that criticism justified?
“No, I don’t believe so. There were differences between what was said at the press conference and what was in the letter to parliament. That caused some delays. At 8pm, we sent out an email with the correct information and adjusted the information on the website. Students want clarity. If you send out multiple letters on one day with constantly changing information, that’s not okay either. But of course you want to communicate as fast and carefully as possible. We’re doing our utmost best to ensure that.”

Why did the university ask students abroad to return, and advise international students to leave?
“Here, too, we’re talking about custom solutions. There are students in areas where the virus is running rampant, and they can’t take any classes. Moreover, you don’t know whether there might be travel restrictions soon. In that case, it can be smart to return home.

As for international students, we’ve mostly wanted to offer them the freedom of choosing to leave. We received many questions. You don’t want to force those students to stay here. Furthermore, for these students, it’s incredibly unpleasant to have to stay indoors. They don’t have a family network here so they can easily become socially isolated. We’ve offered these students the option of leaving and we’ll be supporting them in that, just as we’re supporting the students who decide to stay here.”

The measures have been strengthened a few times already since last Thursday. Now, only people in vital jobs are allowed to go to work. What are the vital jobs for the university?
“We want to take the maximum responsibility in curbing the spread of the virus, and so we’re saying: no one comes to work, unless. And then, indeed, we’re talking about work that definitely has to be done, and has to be done here. Think of animal caretakers, maintaining the cogeneration plant, security. Or, think of cases like current, ongoing experiments in laboratories, which would cause enormous damage to the research if you were to suddenly stop. We have, however, said that no new experiments will be started now.

This way, we’re reducing the number of people that can possibly infect others. Even the crisis team doesn’t always have to come to work. They can work from home as well. IT services are helping with facilities to improve online communication further.”

What does it mean for the employees if they’re unable to do all their work from home?
“For now, we’re being very lenient. Some people can do more from home than others, and so be it. You discuss that with your manager. And you’re not forced to use your holiday time. If this lasts longer, we will have to see how we’ll solve this. We’re not requesting a reduction in work hours for now, but if this lasts a very long time, perhaps we’ll have to look into that. The current situation is mostly unpleasant for self-employed workers, or people without an employment contract.”

How big are the consequences for the university?
“We can’t really oversee the consequences right now. Of course it’s tricky for students who can’t come to the University Library to study, for teachers who have to care for their children at home while simultaneously fix their courses, for researchers who can’t come to their labs. It will definitely cost money. There are also many activities that are cancelled: orations, PhD ceremonies, graduation ceremonies. We’ll have to see how we can reschedule those after the corona virus has gone. That will take a lot of flexibility.”

How can the university support its students?
“As mentioned, we want to limit study delays as much as possible. We’re making efforts to ensure that. But we also realise that for students, these can be financially difficult times. Some part-time jobs will disappear, some internships are put on hold, and perhaps some students will experience study delays after all. The minister has already said that for students who are in financial peril, we’ll have to see whether they are eligible for funding from the profiling fund. That’s an emergency fund that students can request funding from in case of force majeure, illness, and so forth.”

What do you want to tell the students and employees at the UU?
“This is a crisis of an unprecedented scale. It’s major. I’m really impressed with how the people at the UU have handled this so far. Teachers, who immediately started figuring out how to successfully continue their courses, security staff handling the situation here, communication officers working until late at night. But we also received the offer of volunteers from other departments to help answer questions from students on the phone.

"Students in Utrecht have also been great. On Wednesday night, I received a phone call from student association USC that they were closing their house and the Woo bar. They anticipated the situation correctly. This weekend, I walked through town and saw that it was quiet. No large groups of students going out, or student parties in student homes. The students are adhering to the guidelines, and that’s an absolute must in a crisis. We have to put our backs into it, for the health and safety of vulnerable people. It would be great if in these times, we can really have solidarity amongst us, even if it takes longer.”

Tags: coronavirus