It goes without saying that health, safety and the prevention of an economic downturn with high levels of unemployment are the top priorities of public authorities and society during this crisis. However, having transformed our universities into temporary online organisations, we are seeing the importance of face-to-face contact between students and between students and lecturers all the more, now that it has almost completely disappeared.
Face-to-face contact must be organised as soon as possible, not only for on-site teaching but for all students. Character development is the foundation of university education. We are concerned that a generation of students will be lost if we are unable to revive this crucial face-to-face contact soon. In order to enable face-to-face contact, it is essential for students to be able to actually reach the university. We are therefore asking policymakers to ensure such mobility for our current and prospective students when setting up plans for the use of public transport in the coming months. Their mobility should not be restricted, but increased.
Last week, a new generation of secondary school students graduated. They will be entering a new phase in their lives when they go to university; a crucial phase in their development as human beings and academics.
If you wander onto any university campus in the Netherlands today, however, you are struck by the haunting emptiness. The normally vibrant atmosphere is lacking, there are no animated discussions, no groups of young people studying, taking a coffee break or researching together, no interactions with lecturers or researchers. More than ever before, we are realising the importance of human interaction when acquiring, developing and sharing knowledge: studying is something you do together.
University education is based on character development and socialisation in the learning process. The fact that not all social groups have equal access to digital education, as is now apparent, is particularly problematic. The lack of Wi-Fi and a fraught home situation are disastrous for the online learning process. Although the diversity of our student population is a great asset, we are once again seeing differences arise. This crisis must not lead to an increase in educational inequality.
The emergency measures taken by the universities during this crisis will allow us to manage our activities for a short period of time. However, the forecasts now indicate that we will not be leaving this period behind any time soon and that it may even return in waves. As an academic community, it is forcing us to think further ahead.
It is crucial for national and regional authorities to recognise and support us in our concerns. As opportunities for relaunching campus life are gradually emerging, the universities are planning to revive crucial physical interaction, naturally while taking coronavirus-related limitations into account.
Meeting up and learning together is not only important from the perspective of students and lecturers. Universities form part of a vibrant regional and urban ecosystem and the entire chain is affected by relatively long periods of closure or very limited opening.
We must invest in the future of our young people by also giving the current generation of students the opportunity to fully develop their talents. Students can return to the campus for on-site teaching and lectures must be given within a tight time slot in order not to burden public transport. However, more space is needed to allow people to travel to the campus – mostly on foot and by bicycle, but also by car and public transport – and to meet on campus and at the university for the crucial social interaction.
We note that our national and local authorities, in consultation with public transport companies and many organisations involved, are seeking dialogue in order to allow students and staff to travel to the campuses in a responsible manner. We would ask the government to take this into account when developing new guidelines.
With a view to the future, the next generation of students will need space – both literally and figuratively. They already deserve a place now. For our part, we will assume our responsibility for creating safe learning and working environments, taking into account the local community that we are so happy to be a part of.
During this crisis period too, please give students the space they need to develop. We are organising this space at our universities. Make it possible for students to actually get to the campuses. It is an investment in the future.
Frank Baaijens, rector magnificus Technische Universiteit Eindhoven
Theo Bastiaens, rector magnificus Open Universiteit
Rutger Engels, rector magnificus Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam
Tim van der Hagen, rector magnificus Technische Universiteit Delft
Han van Krieken, rector magnificus Radboud Universiteit
Henk Kummeling, rector magnificus Universiteit Utrecht
Rianne Letschert, rector magnificus Universiteit Maastricht
Karen Maex, rector magnificus Universiteit van Amsterdam
Arthur Mol, rector magnificus Wageningen Universiteit
Thom Palstra, rector magnificus Universiteit Twente
Joke van Saane, rector magnificus Universiteit voor Humanistiek
Klaas Sijtsma, rector magnificus Tilburg University
Carel Stolker, rector magnificus Universiteit Leiden
Vinod Subramaniam, rector magnificus Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam