New lockdown scuppers Dutch campus opening strategy

Trying to steer a sustainable middle course, Dutch universities have been at 20 per cent capacity this semester

December 17, 2020
Empty terraces in Amsterdam Netherlands during Corona crisis
Source: iStock

The Dutch government has shut down physical teaching on university campuses in response to rising coronavirus infection rates, ending for now the country’s attempt to steer a middle way between a full shutdown and life as normal to preserve at least some face-to-face student life.

From 16 December, universities, as well as primary and secondary schools, switched to online teaching. Dutch institutions had attempted to keep about 20 cent of their teaching on campus, and provide safe social events to welcome new students in the autumn.

But with cases spiking since the beginning of December, the government “had no other choice”, said Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), which had kitted out its campus to allow limited physical presence. Another Dutch institution, Radboud University Nijmegen, had spent €250,000 (£226,000) hiring out concert venues to create extra space for lectures.

The new shutdown is not aimed at universities specifically. Other establishments including museums, restaurants, clothing shops, zoos and casinos will also be closed in a bid to cut contact.

There is some frustration, however, that universities have been largely closed down despite not appearing to contribute to rising cases.

“Of course our students are disappointed, notably because there were no outbreaks on our campus nor at the other Dutch universities,” said Professor Smits.

Lyle Muns, chairman of the country’s main student organisation, the LSVb, said that to his knowledge, no campus outbreaks had been recorded. “But obviously students need to use public transport so the government is trying to reduce travel in order to prevent outbreaks there,” he explained. 

At the start of the autumn semester, Dutch universities and the government eschewed an online-only approach, arguing that face-to-face campus contact was a crucial part of the character-forming experience of higher education.

But this latest shutdown, which follows similar measures in France and Switzerland back in late October, has sector leaders worried about student mental health.

Students at TU/e “all said that they had hoped so much to be allowed to go back to campus at bit more after the Christmas break and meet with their friends”, said Professor Smits. “But they understand that there was no other choice for the government.”

They have stepped up online events to stay positive, he said. “It is worrying, however, that they also see that an increasing number of fellow students are no longer participating in these online events, which might be a sign that some might become isolated and perhaps even get lonely and depressed,” he warned. “With the Christmas period in sight, this is not what we want to see and will avoid at all costs.”

“We do emphasise that, after the lockdown, education [venues] have to reopen quickly and that there needs to be a plan to gradually go back to normal education with a combination of extra physical locations, fast testing and vaccination for students and teachers,” added Mr Muns.

Although classes will now be as a rule online-only, there are exemptions for exams, hands-on teaching, and vulnerable students.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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