Binding study advice should be tailor-made
Get rid of that ticking time bomb
In order to get a positive study advice, Floris (21) had to get sixty ECTS during his first year of liberal arts and sciences at the University College Groningen. In the end, he managed fifty. He clearly remembers what it was like when he was told he couldn’t continue. ‘It was hard, because for a long time I thought everything would be okay.’
He tried again a year later, at the law faculty. This time, the requirement was forty-five ECTS. ‘There was so much pressure. Every time something went wrong, I’d start imagining all these awful things.’ Once again, Floris didn’t earn the required number of points, and he had to quit his studies.
Every time something went wrong, I’d start imagining all these awful things
This is what it’s like for every first-year student: they have to get a certain number of ECTS – usually forty-five – in order to move on to the second year. If they don’t get the points, they can try their luck elsewhere.
The binding study advice (BSA) was introduced in 1993, with the objective to make students graduate faster and weed out unsuitable students. Universities of applied sciences and research universities could decide for themselves whether to implement it and how to do so. The UG didn’t introduce the BSA until 2010.
But now the Lower House and education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven want to get rid of the BSA. They feel it puts too much pressure on students, keeps them from engaging in any extracurricular activities, and that it negates students’ own responsibility.
The Groninger Studentenbond (GSb) is happy. ‘As far as we’re concerned, it’s simple’, says GSb chair Marinus Jongman. ‘The BSA is not meeting its objectives.’ Jongman is referring to a study from 2018 which showed that, after receiving a negative BSA, many students simply transferred to a different university to do the same programme there. ‘But its objective was to make sure students study something that’s right for them.’
The GSb has been fighting the BSA for years, for the exact same reasons the House is now naming. They say it’s a childish rule that’s unnecessarily taxing on students. ‘They’re in a totally new environment, dealing with new things’, says Jongman. ‘They really don’t need the added pressure.’
Mirjam Nederveen, academic advisor at the department of mathematics and applied mathematics, sees how many first-year students are stressed out from the BSA. ‘I wish I could tell them to take fewer courses in a block to lower the pressure. But with the BSA, I can’t.’
Is it about getting a degree as quickly as possible, or about how you develop?
She feels the BSA sends the wrong message, since it forces students to pass the first year as quickly as possible. ‘I think we should be asking ourselves what studying is really about’, she says. ‘Is it about getting a degree as quickly as possible, or about how you develop during your studies?’
But the UG didn’t introduce the BSA all willy-nilly: it was supported by faculties and student parties. Study advisor and English lecturer Hans Jansen still thinks the BSA is great. ‘It used to be impossible to dismiss students who couldn’t handle it’, he explains. ‘But some students just clearly lacked insight and talent.’
Responses from higher education
The potential repeal of the BSA is on people’s minds at other universities, as well. Karen Maex, rector magnificus at UvA, is quoted in Folia as having doubts about the Lower House’s ideas. Carel Stolker, rector magnificus at the University of Leiden, tweeted that he felt the Lower House was in favour of ‘slow students, struggling students, and increased work stress’. Cisca Wijmenga shared his tweet.
Gert Jan Geling, lecturer at the The Hague University of Applied Sciences, wrote an op-ed in newspaper Trouw, arguing that scrapping the BSA would be a bad idea. VSNU chair Pieter Duisenberg and Carel Stolker both posted a link to the article on Twitter. Stolker also wrote that the BSA should never be scrapped without ‘thorough research’ or ‘the involvement of lecturers’.
The BSA allows the university to step in. ‘It prevents these students from wasting time on studying something that simply doesn’t suit them’, says Jansen. ‘The BSA is for unsuitable students who don’t realise they’re unsuitable. This particular group takes up a lot of time and leads to a lot of work for us.’
Jaap Dijkstra, education director at the law faculty, agrees. ‘The BSA helps us determine whether someone can handle the programme. If you look at it like that, you can see how it benefits the quality of the programme and the students themselves’, he says. First-year students should be expected to meet a certain standard. ‘But the requirements should be reasonable, of course’, he says.
According to Hidde de Haas, study advisor at the Faculty of Arts, students make a more informed decision about what to study thanks to the BSA. ‘It gives us more insight into who the students are, which means we can advise them better’, he says.
The BSA might be a good tool to weed out lazy or unsuitable students, but the situation becomes more complicated when it involves students in special circumstances. Saskia Peters, chair of the BSA committee at the Faculty of Law, assesses cases where students fail to meet the norm for what they say are good reasons. The law faculty had 830 first-years during the 2018-2019 academic year, and a hundred cases landed on her desk during that period. ‘We try to assess whether a student can handle the programme. There is a set of criteria we use to assess whether a student will be able to finish the programme within a certain time frame. But those are never open-and-shut cases, so it’s not easy.’
We should figure out how to mitigate drawbacks, not scrap the BSA altogether
The discussion’s not an easy one, she feels. ‘The BSA really helps some students’, she says. ‘Sometimes you just need to clearly tell them that it won’t work out for them instead of letting them muddle on. We shouldn’t be too cautious. That just leads to more problems.’
On the other hand, she says: ‘The pressure on students, both in terms of money and achievements, has really increased. I think it’s pretty clear that the BSA only adds to that stress.’
De Haas has no choice but to concur. Students are incredibly stressed out and have trouble adjusting in the beginning, he says. ‘But I think that means we need to figure out how to mitigate those drawbacks’, he says, ‘rather than just scrap the BSA altogether.’
Lowering the required number of ECTS from forty-five to forty is certainly an option, says Jansen. ‘I think that’s something we could discuss.’ He’s not in favour of scrapping the BSA, but thinks a tailor-made advice could be the solution: determine beforehand what is expected of each individual student. It would allow the university to take personal circumstances into account.
In the meantime, experts argue in favour of compensation measures, or determining which exact courses can help to assess how suitable a student is. ‘We could designate a few essential courses that every student should pass’, educational expert Henk van Berkel suggests. ‘That might help us to stop focusing on the number of ECTS a student gets.’
Another option is to allow students to compensate failed courses with high marks from other courses, he says. Students would still have to get sixty ECTS, but they wouldn’t be expected to pass every course.
Invest in quality
‘You have to design your programme in such a way that students can earn those sixty points’, says educational expert Ellen Jansen. ‘Educational institutes should invest in the quality of education and enable students to pass everything, with compensation measures in place.’
She doesn’t think switching to a non-binding recommendation is a good idea. ‘Students ignore that.’ Dijkstra agrees: ‘Every year at the law department’s matching day, we see how students disregard the advice.’
A special committee made up of both lecturers and students has been created to study the matter, rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga said during the university council meeting last week. ‘They’ll look at what the BSA means for all parties involved and will write a report on its advantages and drawbacks. We’ll go from there.’
What about Floris? He decided a new start was in order. He’s since moved to Utrecht, where he recently started the second year of his history studies. He’s passed all courses so far.