More money for staff who want to buy new laptop
This is our last interview before the summer. We’d like to know how previously discussed issues are working out. One of them is the reimbursement of tuition fees for students who pay institutional tuition fees and are suffering a delay because of corona. What’s new on this front?
Hans Biemans: ‘We’ve decided to follow minister Van Engelshoven’s recommendation regarding non-EU students. That means that master students who are forced to re-enrol but graduate before February 1, 2021, will be reimbursed three months of their tuition fees.’
Three months of legal tuition fees?
Hans Biemans: ‘No, it includes tuition fees above the statutory minimum. That means the fees that they would normally pay.’
Why will you only be reimbursing non-EU students paying institutional tuition fees?
Hans Biemans: ‘It only applies to non-EU students since EU students can turn to DUO for help. Non-EU students don’t have this option.’
Earlier, you said you were working on a plan to make sure that people’s home office would comply with health and safety. How’s that going?
Hans Biemans: ‘Last week, we decided to expand the laptop arrangement. Other than that, we’re still working on determining what people need and what we can give them. If we want to have a hybrid form of education, we have to ensure that everyone can participate, that it’s sufficiently interactive for people participating and that our technology is good enough to organise online classes.
The technical aspect involves having the right equipment and the human aspect involves teaching lecturers and support staff how everything works. We’re working on that right now; we feel that we’re supporting lecturers by providing them the facilities to teach online.’
Can you explain how you expanded the laptop arrangement?
Hans Biemans: ‘People can buy their own laptop and get reimbursed up to a certain amount. It’s an existing arrangement, but it’s been changed retroactively. We’re increased the amount of money people can get back, allowing them to buy more expensive laptops. Hopefully, that will add some comfort to working from home.’
Last week, the government announced drastic relaxations of the corona rules. For the university, this means that students will be able to use public transport to get to class outside of peak hours. How will this affect the educational plans for students?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘Obviously, we don’t have a say in how faculties organise their education. The whole public transport thing was less of an issue here in Groningen since a lot of student bike to class. But I think the biggest issue is with buildings and how we’re allowed to use them, since that determines how many people are allowed inside. Nothing’s changed there; we still have to keep our distance.
We still feel that everyone should have access to education, which is why we’ll continue offering it online. But we do want to move towards a hybrid mode. We’ve seen people’s disconcerted reaction to this, so it’s important to clarify that we want classes to be available both live and online, at the same time. We don’t want lecturers to have to repeat the same class.
It’s like how we organised PhD ceremonies: we were able to relax some of the rules and allow more people inside. But some of them still had to watch it online. It would be a great way to involve everyone in education. It’s not like our ideas have changed after last Wednesday. The only question is how we’ll make everything work.’
Jouke de Vries: ‘Once we figure out online education, I don’t think it would be hard to combine it with on-site classes. What if there’s an unexpected second wave and we have to go into lockdown again? We have to make sure we can provide education online. Anything that can be done on site is icing on the cake.’
Will we even be able to have large groups of students in a single room again?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘I don’t think so. I don’t know how big all the lecture halls are, but we do have to keep our distance from each other. Big lectures will have to be cancelled. Perhaps it would be better to do those online anyway. People can actively listen to the online lecture and then attend a seminar to discuss the subject in more depth. We have to focus more on the added value of people gathering.’
The rectors at the University of Maastricht and University of Leiden were angry with education minister Van Engelshoven last week. They feel she keeps saying the wrong things and that she doesn’t know anything about how universities work. Do you understand why your colleagues are angry?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘I understand where they’re coming from and it’s not like I totally disagree. I think it could be said that other ministers treat their supporters better than the minister of education does.’
Jouke de Vries: ‘Of course we say things ourselves, like how it’s not smart to work nights and weekends. But I think it’s too easy to use Twitter to respond to the minister’s statements. Most of the time, she didn’t actually say it like that, and managers end up having to apologise for their excitable tweeting.’
Maastricht created a five million corona fund in an effort to deal with the effects of the crisis. How do you feel about this?
Hans Biemans: ‘All universities are supporting their lecturers. Maastricht has decided to call it a corona fund. We’re working on it too: we’re getting the support necessary for the technical side of online classes, we’re making sure the equipment is up to date, and we’re helping people work from home. I don’t really know how much money we’re spending on that without a calculator.’
Maastricht has explicitly said the money is to ease work stress, which the corona crisis has only made worse. In other words, they want to hire more people.
Hans Biemans: ‘We don’t know how many students will be registering with us yet. It’s difficult to hire more people when we don’t know how many we’ll actually need. And even if we just hire support staff, we’d still have to train them, which would increase other people’s work stress. It would take a while before these people could actually start working.’
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘We can’t just say that we’ll be hiring more people, because we don’t want to stir up expectations. It’s a delicate subject. Perhaps lecturers are better helped with student assistants than extra support staff. Those are things we need to figure out before saying anything about this.’