Universities seeing impact of pandemic on students

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Why is it that second-year students are so reluctant to come to campus, despite being welcome to attend classes in person again? In an online meeting with journalists, Rector Han van Krieken of Radboud University Nijmegen says he has discussed this issue with a group of student leaders.

Current second-year students started their programmes during the lockdown and never experienced an introduction period. Many of them are still living with their parents and they 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. They play football with 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, as well as additional activities organised by student associations. In some cases, they have even reverted to compulsory attendance.

Another problem concerns the learning process itself, Ten Dam reveals. Learning is so much 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 can only achieve through interaction. It remains very much an open question how that will play out in the future.”

Fewer credits
Academic achievement has also been impacted by the pandemic. Pieter Duisenberg, President of the umbrella organisation Universities of the Netherlands (UNL), points out the number of students who earned relatively few credits during the coronavirus crisis.

In the first year of the crisis (the spring of 2020), universities postponed binding recommendations and allowed all students to move on to the second year of their programme regardless of the number of credits earned. They then proceeded to lower the number of credits required for a positive recommendation in the subsequent two years. The main effect of this intervention concerns 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 them 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 the 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.”