Many questions that can’t all be answered
Board: university needs tailor-made solutions
Various sources have told us that students feel you’re not paying enough attention to them. They’re unhappy because there are too many questions left unanswered. Do you understand why they’re unhappy? What can the board do about this?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘Unfortunately, we also have a long list of unanswered questions. To get the answers, we have to talk to the Association of Universities (VSNU) and the minister. We’re always discussing and answering the most important questions, like the one on the binding study advice. We can only do something about a situation once we have answers. Before that, it’s just really difficult.’
A straightforward question: How do you feel about compensating students for the tuition fees they’ve paid?
Hans Biemans: ‘There are several criteria students have to meet to register for a degree programme. One of them is to pay your statutory tuition fees. Our current reality is that some students are benefiting from online classes while others aren’t. Our first priority is to make sure everyone has access to online classes.
But some students will suffer delays from that. We’re talking to the minister to see if we can find any solutions to that, but for now, she’s leaning towards an extension of the DUO loan period. Then there are international students from outside the EU. What can we do for them? Could we do something about their tuition fees? That’s also a question we’re discussing with the VSNU and the minister.’
Do you feel students are justified in not wanting to pay tuition fees?
Hans Biemans: ‘Unfortunately, this crisis affects everyone. We’ve transformed education and the exams, but we understand that some students are still at risk of problems. For EU students, we can consider using the graduation fund in case of emergency.
It’s different for non-EU students; we’re not allowed to use any public funds to compensate them. We’d have to find a different emergency fund for them. Right now, we’re still working on a solution. Sometimes, we run into issues with national regulations. We’re dependent on how much room we have to deal with this. We’re working on it.’
Another burning question that students have is how exams will be graded. It’s been suggested to implement a pass/fail system, overriding the regular grading system. How do you feel about that?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘We haven’t talked about that yet. We’re still working out which exams can be done online and which can’t. At first, people were hopeful that the exam halls would be accessible by June so we could make up for lost time. But that’s becoming less and less likely.’
The university has announced everything would be online until the end of August, which means many students have left Groningen. Some of them have returned to their own countries. If the government does ease up on the rules by the end of April, how big is the chance that exams will be administered in person after all?
Jouke de Vries: ‘We’re following national policy and await the new measures. We can’t rule out, or rule in, any scenarios right now. We have to keep all our options open. If the situation does change, we have to be able seize whatever opportunity is available to us.’
Hans Biemans: ‘We have to solve the problems that might arise for international students who went home. We don’t know what that solution looks like yet. We have to talk about it.’
The university employs quite a few people on temporary contracts, like PhD candidates and post-docs. Their research has come to a standstill. How do you feel about that?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘We can’t talk about that as though it’s a broad issue; we need tailor-made solutions. This affects people in different ways. Some PhD candidates are dependent on lab work. Some of them can focus on writing instead, but others can’t. Ultimately, the faculties themselves will have the best overview of this.
At the same time, we have to realise these aren’t questions we can answer just like that. We’re working so hard on switching to online education. I know we’re asking a lot of our people and there’s only so much they can do. Their well-being is important, too.’
Jouke de Vries: ‘We know that this situation will impact the temporary contracts. But it’s difficult to say how exactly. The faculties are mapping out the situation, which the board then discusses with the VSNU and the ministry. Right now, we’re focusing on people whose contracts are up soon. But we also have to look at people whose visa are expiring. The question is how much room the ministry will give us to extend contracts without being forced to offer everyone permanent positions.’
There are speculations that the number of international students coming to the UG next year could be half of what it was this year. What would that mean for the university and how are you preparing for this eventuality?
Hans Biemans: ‘Right now, we’re thinking in terms of scenarios. There are two possible scenarios. In the first one, this crisis will be over soon, which will mainly affect the influx in September. In the second scenario, this crisis lasts much longer and the decline will affect the next year and potentially years to come.
The faculties will be working on predicting how either scenario would affect them: how do they financially depend on the influx of students? The faculty boards have better insight into this than we do. That’s not just in terms of education, but also in terms of research. Research that’s delayed will still have to be paid for. So another important question is how the research financiers feel about it all.’
Questions for the UG board about corona?
UKrant will virtually sit down with the UG board every week to ask them about how the university is dealing with the corona crisis. You can send any questions you have for the UG board to firstname.lastname@example.org.