UG board is considering dedicated student bus line
‘Room for interpretation of transport rules’
Board is considering dedicated student bus line
Do you have a question?
Every week, rector Cisca Wijmenga, board president Jouke de Vries, and board member Hans Biemans will be answering the most burning questions from the academic community.
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The university is allowed to restart education activities on a small-scale basis. We’ll be able to have practicals again, and exams that can’t be administered online can be administered in person. But everything has to take place between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. in an effort not to overwhelm public transport. What does this mean for the UG?
Jouke de Vries: The time slot is to prevent students from travelling on public transport during rush hour. Right now, it’s set between 11 and 3, but in reality it will last until 8 at night, since students will be allowed to stay at the university. This leaves room for various approaches. We’ll have to confer with the Safety Region Groningen about what’s possible in Groningen.
Overarching university organisation VSNU published a protocol that specifically states that education activities are not allowed to start or end between 3 and 8 p.m.
Hans Biemans: ‘The goal is not to overwhelm public transport. The protocol isn’t meant to regulate the functionality of universities. As long as we can guarantee that public transport won’t be overwhelmed, I think there’s room for interpretation. Fortunately, many students bike in Groningen.’
It also looks like there’s room for a regional interpretation of the relaxation of the rules. What will this look like at the UG?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘Take the buses that really only students use, like bus 15 to Zernike or the number 4 to UMCG Noord. We could make arrangements with the local transport authorities about a dedicated bus service to students. I don’t think we strictly need to adhere to the 11-to-3 rule, but we’d have to decide that on a case-by-case basis.’
Hans Biemans: ‘We’ve been in contact with authorities like the municipality and regional transport companies for several years now, staying up to date on the construction on the southern ring road and railway work. They’ve now joined the Safety Region, so we can use our experience with them in those conversations as well.’
The measures the university needs to take to slowly re-open all cost money. Who’s footing the bill?
Hans Biemans: ‘Right now, we are. We’ve also agreed with the VSNU to provide an overview of the costs, such as adjustments to our IT facilities and buildings, but also a potential loss of income caused by fewer students enrolling with us.
We’ll be keeping track of all that. Universities will eventually compare the costs to create an overview of what the sector is dealing with. Then we’ll talk to the State to find out whether we’re a service that should be given priority. I can imagine they might want to help us by stimulating those areas that develop the kind of knowledge that can help with this health crisis. In other words, an investment in the future, rather than a remuneration of costs incurred.’
That sounds like a Van Rijn move in disguise: investing in the science programmes since we’ll be needing them in the future. Wouldn’t you run the risk of making relatively little extra money on degree programmes, resulting in the humanities, for example, taking on the brunt of the extra costs?
Hans Biemans: ‘No, I don’t think so. I think this crisis is teaching us new things. The experiences and problems we’re encountering right now go beyond hard science. I think arts and social sciences will have a renaissance.’
Jouke de Vries: ‘Like Hans says, this crisis is bringing the importance of other issues to the foreground. There’s the matter of loneliness, which would require research into interpersonal relationships. How do these relationships work? How can we maintain social cohesion? The hard sciences won’t be able to answer those questions.
If we can set up partnerships with other northern partners, corporations, and institutes, the university could serve as a key player in economic development in certain fields. That’d be interesting; it’s an opportunity to match relevant research to current issues while also stimulating the economy.’
The Erasmus University looked at another possible effect of the corona crisis: stress among students and staff. It turns out people were suffering from an increase in stress. Have you been seeing anything like this at the UG?
Hans Biemans: ‘Right now, there’s a study into our students’ well-being that’s being conducted. In the recent past, we commissioned research into the pressure of work and stress among employees. There are various elements at play. One issue people face is not having the right equipment, so they’re not adequately prepared to face this new kind of working.
Another issue is that people feel like they can’t match their own standard of working. All these elements are causing extra stress, and we’re aware of that. We’re trying to overcome that by focusing less on research and more on education.’
Last week, student party SOG called for more understanding for students in this situation. They feel like they’re being left out and that their efforts should be appreciated more. How do you feel about that?
Cisca Wijmenga: ‘Everyone, including students, is having a hard time right now. Young people might have it worse because they’re so used to having an active social life, and suddenly they’re all stuck in their room. I understand why they might not feel heard, but millions of people in the Netherlands are going through the same thing as they are.’
Hans Biemans: ‘We can’t personally comfort more than thirty thousand students. But also understand their worries and issues. That’s why we have been voicing our appreciation for everyone over the past few weeks in our updates, because it’s thanks to everyone’s efforts that the online university is working out. Reading SOG’s letter, I feel that everyone should be taking care of each other right now. Think about your friends every once in a while. Has someone dropped off the radar? Contact them. The board is powerful, but we’re not omnipotent and we have to find solutions to keep research and education going.’
Speaking of solutions: in April, you tested proctoring software during a statistics exam. You’ve seen and discussed the assessment. What are the conclusions?
Hans Biemans: ‘The most interesting conclusion is that proctoring can’t detect every single instance of cheating. That means it’s not a solution that works for everything, just like oral exams aren’t.
There’s a memorandum about online exams and proctoring which includes the outcomes of the experiment. It discusses the various aspects we have to take into account, like the GDPR, the kind of education it could be used for and the risks inherent to its use.
We want to learn from these experiences, but also from other universities’ experiences. We also want to talk to the Dutch Data Protection Authority about using the software. So we’re not making any decisions right now, but we are exploring our options of how to implement something like this.’
Jouke de Vries: ‘We have to explore our options, since online exams will be with us for a while. Of course, we’re considerate of the doubts that some people, like the students, have, both on a national and an international level.
At the same time, what if the coronavirus comes back and we have to go back into lockdown? We have to have a back-up plan, and this could be the way to continue administering some online exams.’