What the million-euro boost for Utrecht student life will look like

Students will soon be able to extend their Olympos subscription by a month, for free. Photo: DUB.

Everybody knows that being forced to spend months at home was extremely hard for many students. A survey of UU students conducted right before the summer revealed that they were longing for more social interaction, which even led some of them to struggle with mental health issues. It is also obvious that these problems are not going to disappear overnight, now that students are finally allowed back in the classroom.

That's why the Dutch government has decided to give universities more resources so they can provide students with a much-needed boost to their wellbeing. The measure is part of the National Education Programme (NPO in the Dutch acronym), which foresees financial support to educational institutions throughout the pandemic (see box at the end of the article).

Utrecht University is set to receive a total of 5.9 million euro to give a boost to students' morale. In a meeting with the University Council, one of the members of the Executive Board, Margot van der Starre, declared that the university is willing to make additional funds available for this purpose, if need be.

Sophomore students get special attention
A significant part of these 6 million euros is going to be spent on activities aimed at fostering a sense of community and improving personal wellbeing among students, according to a memo sent by the Executive Board to the University Council. The document lays out how the university plans on spending that sum over the next two years.

For example, student organisations can use those funds to organise catch-up activities and reintroductions. The money will also be invested in new common rooms and coworking spaces – for starters, the bar located inside Parnassos cultural centre is going to be open during the day as well, at some point in the next two years. In addition, the Botanical Gardens are evaluating the possibility of setting up a similar meeting point for students.

According to Marieke de Bakker, Head of Student Affairs, the university is going to analyse, together with the student organisations, which activities are the most desirable and feasible in the short term. "The plan obviously pays more attention to sophomore students, who missed out on a lot last year. We could, for example, throw a huge party for all UU students or a joint party for student associations."

Working out for free for a month
Students can also expect initiatives aimed at their physical and mental wellbeing. For example, student counselors and therapists are going to have more means to help students. Additionally, the university is discussing online and offline activities related to personal development, such as an online coaching centre.

What's more, the 5,000 students who already possess an Olympos pass will all have their subscriptions extended by a month, for free. New cardholders are also eligible. Those interested in following a course at Parnassos this Autumn can be granted a 25 to 30 percent discount. Students will be officially informed about these advantages in the next few weeks. 

Last but not least, there's an announcement in the memo that is particularly attention-grabbing: the university is studying the possibility of building a padel field next to the sports centre. Padel is a trendy sport that can be described as a mixture of tennis and squash.

Practical skills
But the six million euros are not going to be spent just on activities to foster a sense of community and improve students' physical and mental wellbeing. There will also be funds available for those struggling with their studies. Expect online courses on certain study skills and work groups for students writing their thesis.

There will also be additional support for graduates who feel like the pandemic has kept them from dedicating enough time to skills that are key in their field. That's the case of Veterinary Medicine students missing clinical skills and Psychology students missing conversation techniques.

Improved communication 
According to De Bakker, UU is prioritising initiatives that can be helpful for all UU students, but faculties can also submit projects to be evaluated by a committee. The only thing is that the project must be implemented shortly. "These are auxiliary funds to solve an urgent problem. So, we're looking for concrete ideas," explains the head of student affairs.

It is just as important for students to be aware of the existence of these initiatives, and that they can take advantage of them. But De Bakker is not so reassured about that. The survey of UU students conducted earlier this year showed that students aren't satisfied with the support offered by the university in the last 1.5 years.

In her meetings with student representatives, De Bakker noticed that the pandemic has increased the distance between the students and the university. "The threshold to approach someone has become higher, not to mention there are less informal interactions going on, which means students are not getting practical information by asking each other questions."

Members of the University Council also stated in a meeting that they fear these funds are not going to be enough for the students who need them the most.

Making sure the university communicates effectively with the students is, therefore, a key part of the plan, according to De Bakker. "We'd also like to consult the students about that. How can we reach our students, so that they know that this additional help is available? Maybe we're going to employ student ambassadors. The UU Council has manifested their interest in talking about that. We are eager to get started, so that students can notice a difference as soon as possible."

Medicine students and those in teaching programmes also getting more money
Thanks to NPO, Utrecht University is also getting 750,000 euros to help Medicine students doing internships. Because of Covid, the waiting time for an internship at the hospital has risen to six months.

The money will enable the hospital to offer more internship vacancies, but it is also aimed at anticipating problems related to the pandemic. Say an intern contracts the coronavirus and has to quarantine. Thanks to these funds, the intern would have access to alternative education in order to avoid a graduation delay.

In addition, 600,000 euros are available to reduce graduation delays and drop-out rates among those being trained to become school teachers in Utrecht. For them, too, Covid has made it harder to pursue an internship, not to mention many students have had their graduation delayed because they couldn't conduct research for their thesis at a school.

There are also students who have been employed by schools to assist pupils with learning difficulties. Although that's a valuable experience, it means that they are running late with their studies.

The National Education Programme allocates a total of 8.5 billion to the Dutch educational system, so that it can deal with the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Among the measures benefitting the higher education sector, universities are being compensated for the reduction of the tuition fee for Dutch and EEA students, and for the rise in the number of students.  

For these two reasons, UU is getting approximately 37 million euros over two years. Last spring, UU had already decided to use part of the funds to hire new teachers. The university has also announced earlier this year that it would extend the funds for PhD candidates and postdocs who were unable to complete their research within the duration of their appointment because of the pandemic. The NPO funds can also be used for that purpose, which would mean a bit more than 4 million euros.