Higher education: face-to-face teaching essential but government is asking the impossible with COVID-certificates
With the proposal for the possible introduction of COVID-certificates in higher education as now submitted to the Lower House of Parliament, the government is asking the impossible of the universities of applied sciences and research universities in the Netherlands. Mandatory application of a COVID-certificate undeniably limits access, while the government is also requiring 100% access to higher education for all students. In addition the research universities and universities of applied sciences together have hundreds of locations and thousands of lectures and tutorials every week. Introducing checks for all these venues will lead to major implementation problems. In view of the high level of vaccination and the absence of outbreaks in the sector, the education umbrella organisations the Universities of the Netherlands (UNL) and the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences (VH) urgently request the Lower House not to mandate the COVID-certificates in higher education in this manner and instead to first give the sector the chance to seek alternatives. Should the government nonetheless decide to introduce the COVID-certificates, then the measure can only be introduced in this sector with limited checks and a limited provision of alternative teaching. Universities of applied sciences and research universities may then, for instance, carry out random checks to see whether COVID-certificates are being used in a risk-focused manner in teaching spaces with more than 75 students. In addition, at the international level various other alternatives have been developed for checking admission documents.
COVID-certificates as last resort, full alternative teaching impossible.
The universities of applied sciences and research universities wish to continue to offer as much face-to-face teaching as possible; this is of essential importance for students’ mental health. Especially during this pandemic, we have learned that while online education offers some very good solutions, it also has its limitations as an optimum teaching and learning process. Hence since the outbreak of the pandemic the institutes of higher education have been contributing ideas about ways of continuing face-to-face teaching, especially now that infection rates are rising again. Institutes acknowledge that the COVID-certificates may be introduced as a last resort. But the current plans run up against the boundaries of feasibility in higher education. Institutes are being obliged by the government to offer a full alternative programme to students who are unwilling or unable to present a COVID-certificate. Pieter Duisenberg, President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, comments: ‘Our lecturers already have a very high workload and we can’t ask them now to offer their teaching twice: both physically and online. Online lectures are indeed often feasible, but doubly providing the full range of items like minor courses, project courses and practical courses simply isn’t doable.’ Maurice Limmen, Chair of the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, comments ‘The introduction of COVID-certificates will be detrimental to access to education, no doubt about it. We can’t simultaneously offer the same teaching both physically and digitally. Politicians must provide for a reasonable balance here and not assign an unfeasible task to our lecturers.’
100% checks unfeasible
Research universities and universities of applied sciences are doing all they can to remain open in a safe and responsible way. No major infection clusters have occurred, the level of vaccination among students and staff is high and moreover a considerable proportion of the students have recovered from a COVID-19 infection. Besides these questions about the proportionality of applying COVID-certificates, the scheme is not feasible in practice either. Maurice Limmen: ‘Students come to campus every day and in the process they visit various buildings. This is really something very different than attending a concert from time to time. This is why one can justify limited checks in higher education, and we’re asking the government to create this possibility.’ Pieter Duisenberg: ‘Research universities and universities of applied sciences are not festival sites. We can’t just station a few security guards at one point, and then problem solved. It’s simply not possible to carry out full checks on hundreds of thousands of students at hundreds of locations.’