Pay up, so the RUG can fail you

The great conspiracy

A conspiracy is afoot. Is the university working so hard to attract students only to get rid of them after tuition fees are collected? Some students think so. The UKrant investigates.
By Sara Penaguião / Animation by René Lapoutre

Students asked him point blank after class, says associate professor of statistics Don van Ravenzwaaij: Is the RUG trying to get rid of them? Does the university try to push students out after their tuition fees have cleared?

This conspiracy theory has been handed down faithfully from one incoming class to the next over the years; it seems mostly to pop up during exams.


Students feel like the univerity is stuffing them students with an unpleasant dose of heavy study material to make sure only the most hard-working, diligent, smart students make it to the next year.

No one is telling teachers to fail students

But Van Ravenzwaaij insists: ‘No one is telling teachers to fail students’. The statistics teacher works really hard to teach his students everything they need to know. ‘My job is to ensure fairness and that the difficulty of my courses is consistent every year. I love it when everyone passes; it means I have done my job well.’

Housing crisis

But the rumor that the RUG is out to fail students persists. Where does it come from?

It may have something to do with the ongoing housing crisis the resurfaces with each new academic year. While homeless international students slept in tents or juggled exploitative rent, the media reported on the RUG’s ongoing advertising campaigns abroad. Students got the impression that the university only cared about their money, not their well-being.

And then they found themselves in crowded classrooms, pressured to study hard, afraid of being pushed out altogether unless they can acquire enough points for their BSA.

Conspiracy theory

The situation is the perfect breeding ground for a classical conspiracy theory.

Lecturer Marc Pauly specializes in conspiracy theories, which ‘often arise from distrust in an institution.’

As academics and teachers we can’t see the justification for these kinds of conspiracies

Students who have just made the transition from high school to university, and sometimes even from their home-country to a host-country, are especially vulnerable. Their uncertainty about a new culture and new institutions can generate feelings of distrust. ‘As academics and teachers, we know how the institution works; we are part of it – so we can’t see the justification for these kinds of conspiracies. But students are not part of it.’


These stories are not unique to the RUG. First year student psychology Marile Hüsing has heard these on German universities too. ‘I think this idea is just global.’

At the Faculty of Social Sciences these feelings were enhanced by the huge influx of psychology students and overloaded classrooms, due to a lack of preselection. ‘Students already have a a feeling of insecurity and distrust’, says Van Ravenzwaaij, ‘and that transfers easily to a distrust in the coordination of their courses and the selection of their teachers.’

Many students complain that there is a lack of experienced teachers. ‘The teachers we have are not that great. A lot of them are first year teachers, who barely know what the exams look like’, says first year psychology student Jake Schilling.


‘The classes with good and experienced teachers are overcrowded’, says his classmate, Charlotte d’Souza, ‘but if you can’t get into those classes, the only other option is to learn by yourself. So of course when those are your options, students feel the university is not doing their best.’

The more one tries to argue against a conspiracy the more people will believe in it

Then when two-thirds of students fail the statistics exams, some students conclude the whole thing was orchestrated intentionally to push people out. And these thoughts are very hard to battle, Pauly says. ‘The more one tries to argue against a conspiracy the more people will believe in it. The question is: when does it make sense to believe?’

In reality, when students fail to graduate, the university loses money. The investment – in lecturers, classrooms, and curriculum – is for nothing. ‘Tuition fees cover only a very small part of total costs, so the university never benefits from enrolment and early withdrawal’, explains rector magnificus Elmer Sterken.


Also, students who drop out early get an automatic refund for the months they’ve paid for. ‘Our university has the goal to provide optimal education to students. There is no incentive to make students fail – or the other solution: to let them pass with poor performance. Quality of education is our explicit goal.’

Luckily for the RUG, there are also students who see that when professors pressure first-year students to work really hard, it’s to make sure they pass. Psychology student Marile Hüsing isn’t surprised that the first year is the hardest. ‘It wouldn’t make sense if students were dropping out in their second or third year because of difficulty.’

‘You might feel that you are being pushed out, but maybe that’s just the university’s way of helping you decide whether you want to stay or not’, agrees Schilling. ‘I felt that in my previous study. That’s why I’m doing Psychology now.’

This article has been adapted. A quote has been removed, because it turned out to be incorrect.


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