Rector Hester Bijl on education in times of corona: ‘We have high hopes, but we are also realistic.'
The Dutch universities as a whole are lobbying for a 'normal' academic year from the end of August, where on-campus teaching will be possible. It's a view that Leiden University shares. Rector Hester Bijl talks about what teaching will be like then. She also looks back on a year of lockdown.
First and foremost: what will teaching look like in the coming months?
‘I am very aware that just about everyone is longing for in-person teaching, but the current circumstances make that very difficult, particularly now that we are experiencing the third wave of the virus and the infection rates are still high. Our efforts are directed at offering online teaching as effectively as we can, with just a limited range of on-campus teaching, such as practicals and some exams. And in the meantime, we are making preparations for how we can best use the space on campus once the corona measures can be relaxed a bit more. We're looking at small, on-campus sessions, such as small-scale teaching activities and supervision periods. Exactly what form that will take is being decided by the faculties and programmes, so there may be some differences. We have high hopes but we are also realistic.'
When measures are relaxed, the government wants there to be self-testing in schools and universities. Do you have any details on that?
‘Nothing has been decided for certain yet. The Ministry of Education is still working on the plans, so I don't have any details I can give you. As soon as we have more information, we will pass it on via the corona updates, so it's a good idea to keep your eye on the website. What is and will remain crucial is that everyone does the corona check before coming to the university. Make sure you keep the metre and a half distance, wear a facemask in the buildings, and if you have any symptoms: get a test and stay at home.'
What can you say about the coming academic year?
‘We want the university to be open as much as possible. We're hoping the metre-and-a-half-rule won't be necessary by then, because if we don't need to take that into account, a lot more students can come to the campus. Obviously, that will depend on the number of infections and the vaccination level, as well as on the government's policy. But the universities are urging the VSNU to make sure that higher education is not last in line when restrictions are lifted. It may be that we will be working with hybrid forms of teaching at the start, with online and offline teaching simultaneously, for example, and using adapted classrooms so that it's easier for students to join online classes. As soon as we have more information, we'll let all our students and staff know. But I do want to stress that we are keen to welcome everyone on campus again as soon as possible.
‘Besides the physical lectures, we're also looking at how we can retain some of the positive aspects of online teaching, such as the possibilities for digital interaction and resources, like web lectures and knowledge clips that help students with their preparatory work so there is more time for interaction and contact in the joint meetings. We're going to use pilots to develop blended learning further, so we can make good use of the possibilities it offers. One crucial issue in all these plans is that there has to be good technical and didactic support available for teachers.'
Back to this academic year. The university has been in lockdown for over a year. How are things going with our education and our students?
‘Everyone misses the physical contact enormously, especially students who are spending a lot of time alone in their rooms, and international students who can't return home or who can't come to the Netherlands. It's very hard to stay motivated for such a long period, particularly if an internship or study trip has to be cancelled. On the other hand, students and staff who have medical conditions themselves or who have vulnerable family members are in no rush to come back to the university. More and more students are suffering from emotional problems and that's causing me some concern. We are doing all we can to support them with sessions with student psychologists, workshops on motivation and studying, and by providing student mentors, for example. We hold regular surveys to try to keep up to date with what's going on, and we encourage students to get in touch if they are finding things hard to deal with.'
Are students running into delays with their study programmes?
‘The study results are generally good, and even better than average. Students are working hard and are earning the study credits they need; after all, there's not much else they can do apart from studying. But it's impressive how well they are managing in these difficult circumstances. Things are hard for teachers, too, who are having to give their lectures mainly from home. They miss their students and colleagues. Fortunately, both students and teachers are showing enormous resilience and they often come up with alternative ways of meeting one another online. My message to everyone is: keep up the good work and carry on supporting one another.'
And what's it like being the Rector in this long lockdown?
‘It's a strange time for me, just as it is for our students and staff. I'm used to the practical side of working online, which is very necessary because the work has to carry on. As Rector, I'm responsible for research as well as education. Now that there's no travelling time, I can be in contact with many more researchers on line, so it has its advantages. But I do miss the real-life meetings in the buildings, where you share inspiration and enthusiasm with one another. It's a hopeful sign that vaccinations have been developed so quickly, so that we can now plot a course towards a new situation. And when I see what we have all achieved over this past year, well, it's truly impressive how flexible and resilient we are. Right now, the future may still be uncertain, but things are looking very hopeful.'