Lowering the bar: an oversimplified plan for a complex issue

I really do not get it. Why would the Minister of Education propose the most simplistic possible plan of the reduction of required first-year university credits to 30 out of 60 to reduce student stress?

I try to let this sink in my brain quietly, but even two days later, I find myself outside running and wondering how Robbert Dijkgraaf, a scientist himself who supposedly relies on data, comes up with such a black and white plan for a very complex issue. What – if any – scientific grounds is this decision based on? Did someone at the ministry critically synthesise research evidence about academic success and stress? Did the minister receive advice from professors of educational sciences and study advisors? 

Imagine setting a goal to run a marathon – it was still 42.19 km last time I checked, which is why I will probably never attempt it in this lifetime – but your training consists of merely short runs. No matter how much rest you get, you won’t be able to run a marathon. You simply need to get your kilometres in. You also need to work on your muscle strength, nutrition, and technique, just to name a few of the factors that might determine your success in crossing the finishing line. You get where this is going.

Fewer credits in the first year will mean worse education, and an increase in the chances of dropping out in the second and third years

Fewer credits, more rest, less stress. As simple as that. Except that it is not, just like training to run a marathon isn’t. First-year students struggle to transition from high school to university, living on their own, and working part-time to pay tuition, which inevitably leads to a poor work-life balance. Not to mention how higher education feels like capitalism on steroids and mental health issues are currently having the time of their lives.

So let me be clear: I do not believe that more credits necessarily mean better education, just as not all kilometres are productive when training for a marathon. Some are literally junk. But I do believe that fewer credits in the first year will mean worse education, and an increase in the chances of dropping out in the second and third years (which would be unethical, to say the least), precisely because students will be both unprepared and too late to realise that specific programmes of study are not suited to them.

Now, imagine if money was invested into student housing or subsidies for students in financial need to pay their tuition fees. Wouldn’t that mean that students would have to work fewer hours, which would mean more rest in decent housing? Maybe. Who knows what students do when they are not in class?

Lowering the bar is nothing but another quick patch, and a short-sighted approach to addressing the symptom instead of the larger issue: the performance-driven system of the neoliberal university with profit-making at the centre is leaving students (and teachers) running on empty.




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