Students are fed up with online higher education

Higher education students around the country are fed up with the lack of in-classroom education they are being able to take due to corona virus restrictions. A national protest took place on 2 October in Amsterdam.

At the beginning of the academic year, students around the country are at risk of ending up in isolation, and many are starting to lose motivation. Student unions are warning that the overall quality of education has also declining, and there are concerns about the mental health of students who study at home. In addition, they say there has been a lack of response from the cabinet and educational institutions. The demonstration on the Amsterdam Museumplein consisted of about 100 students, although many carried placards saying their presence was representative of larger groups. The protest was organised by the action group #ikwilnaarschool (I want to go to school), the National Student Union (LSVb) and the Amsterdam student unions ASVA and SRVU. It provided a voice against the high percentage of online lectures and the decline in quality of education due to corona restrictions.

Although frustration was expressed by students around the country, first-year students in particular have shown concerns about a lack of traditional classroom lectures. Many of them are wondering whether the tuition fee they have paid is worth it. According to Lyle Muns, chair of the LSVb, there have also been a lot of complaints from parents. Furthermore, these are fears about of inequality of opportunities, as Muns explains: “Not every student has their own room, or a good laptop and wi-fi connection.” Students are particularly missing eye-to-eye contact with a teacher, which is key when assignments are set and discussed. And although individual teachers are doing great work, students are missing a structure behind their overall course programs.

City theatres and football stadiums
To help things move forward and allow students to come together at a safe distance, unions are pressing for more educational institutions to rent space in suitable locations, like the University of Twente has done with the Grolsch Veste football stadium. “Before the summer, we spoke with Minister of Education Van Engelshoven and Prime Minister Rutte about the option of renting external locations such as theatres and community centres to make physical lectures possible. There was a positive response. But now we don’t see enough of that happening,” said Muns. However, the Association of Universities (VSNU) assured De Volkskrant newspaper that universities are doing everything they can to make actual classroom education a possibility. “Believe me, they are working very hard,” said VSNU spokesperson Bart Pierik, adding: “But the situation is incredibly complex, especially for the roster schedulers.”

The bigger picture
Students are also concerned with what they consider a lack of a long-term strategy. Instead of the current focus on the short term, they argue, a scenario in which the virus will play a large role for years to come should be taken into account when planning lectures and rosters. They argue universities should be looking for a variety of ways to include traditional classroom education amidst the new regulations. According to some Dutch media, universities are working hard in the background on different types of future scenarios, but this is not visible to the students.

Despite the recent tightening of national corona restrictions, Muns said: “I think that what we are asking for does not pose a risk of additional infections. It is better to have students come together in a controlled manner. If you don’t, they will still get together elsewhere.” He argues: “If you want to impose more restrictions on young people and students, you also have to offer them perspective.” According to Muns, there have been no clear guidelines on how things can actually be done, but only announcements on things that are forbidden. This is a disheartening situation and means that the corona restrictions are fast losing the support of students. Meanwhile, VSNU spokesperson Pierik called the current state of affairs in higher education ‘a tragedy created by the situation,’ and said: “Students don’t get what they deserve, universities have to bend themselves backward and lecturers are overworked to make things happen. Everyone has to run faster, but no one really gets what they hoped for.”

Written by Femke van Iperen