Higher education to reduce group size and possibly adopt QR codes

Photo: DUB

The Covid-19 pandemic rears up its ugly head once again, leading the Dutch government to adopt measures to contain it. Citizens are now expected to keep a distance of 1.5 metres (6 feet) from each other, refrain from throwing parties, and work from home as often as possible, stated Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Minister of Health Hugo De Jonge in their latest press conference.

But higher education institutions do not have to shut their doors, neither does the social distancing rule apply to their classes. The only rule they have to adopt now is the limit of 75 students in the same lecture hall. Exams are exempt from said rule.

QR codes
The new rules are valid at least until December 4, but the government does not expect the fight against the coronavirus to end there. The ministers would like the Covid pass (QR codes) to be required in more places.

"It should be possible to implement the Covid pass in higher education institutions, but only if there is no alternative", declared De Jonge. "That means: only if the situation worsens to such a degree that online education becomes the only option." 

A temporary law already foresees the use of the Covid pass by higher education institutions. But, in order for it to happen, the decision must first be discussed by the House of Representatives and the co-representation bodies. Therefore, it would take several weeks for the requirement to become reality. 

Representatives of Dutch higher education institutions are showing understanding for the new rules. Pieter Duisenberg, chair of the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU in the Dutch acronym) states: "Although large lectures will have to take place online again, it is good that most educational activities can go on as usual. Face-to-face education is extremely important for the mental health of our students, who suffered from stress, loneliness, and anxiety the last time around."

Duisenberg adds that universities have managed to offer classes safely. "There have been no major outbreaks and research reveals that the vaccination rate is high among university students and teachers."

Mental health
Maurice Limmen, chair of the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, agrees: "It's key that out sector can continue to offer most classes on location, especially in light of the mental health of our students, which is considerably under pressure."

So far, there have been no significant outbreaks in universities of applied sciences either, according to Limmen. "But we should keep enforcing the behavioral rules: stay home and get tested if you experience any symptoms, make regular use of self-tests even when you don't have any symptoms, and wear a face mask when moving around."

The National Students Association also understands the measures, according to chair Lisanne de Roos. "Each restriction is a blow, of course, but fortunately we're still able to have classes on campus. It remains to be seen. This is still proportional."

However, Roos says she is "extra nervous" about what the cabinet intends to do with the Covid pass in higher education. "That worries me, because it's all happening so fast. I hope that doesn't come at the expense of due diligence."

Really serious
The National Student Union is annoyed by the restriction to the number of students allowed to gather in a single classroom, since that means that part of the classes will be offered online now, says chair Ana Boahene. "At the same time, the rule is not so bad, it's reasonable. I really hope that it only lasts for three weeks."

She also has reservations about the proposal to adopt the Covid pass. "That is really serious, because the Covid pass is a huge limitation. The access to education will then be limited to part of the students. It is crucial that higher education remains open without a Covid pass. After all, there is no evidence of higher education institutions being hotbeds of Covid-19 transmissions, not to mention the vaccination rate is high among students."

UU has decided to cancel all classes on location on Monday and Tuesday. The graduation ceremonies set to take place in the university's buildings on those days have also been scrapped.

The announcement was made in an e-mail sent to all students and staff on Friday evening. Seminars and online classes will be taking place as usual. An e-mail about what is going to happen with the classes from Wednesday onwards is going to be sent to students on Tuesday at the latest.

Additionally, students are expected to study at home as much as possible, although they can still reserve a spot at the library. Employees are being asked to work from home whenever possible. Those who come to the campus anyway must observe a distance of 1.5 metres from others outside the lecture halls.

Lastly, lectures and drinks have been cancelled, too. The university finds it "inappropriate" to let students and employees come to its premises for those purposes.