Interview with Cisca Wijmenga
What can we expect in the new year?
Making educational plans for the new academic year is not easy. Rector magnificus Cisca Wijmenga will be the first to admit it. Together with the other members of the board of directors, she has to find a path while taking countless uncertainties into account. She’s not sure how many students will come to Groningen, or what the pandemic will do.
It looks like student numbers might increase exponentially by next year, with the number of enrolments much higher than normally. ‘It’s the Brexit effect’, she says. ‘Students who would have gone to England have now decided to go for a well-known university with international cachet.’
In case you hadn’t realised, she means Groningen. But, she emphasises, all the other Dutch universities fall under that header as well. ‘Students often register at several universities at once. We don’t yet know if they’ll actually come here.’
Dutch first-years are also a cause of uncertainty. Will they be taking a gap year? They didn’t last year, since the pandemic made travel impossible. It looks like they won’t this year either, but if corona is under control by the end of the summer, this could always change.
Then there’s the question of whether the university will be opening back up. Will we return to business as usual? Or will new strains of the virus lead to another lockdown?
I don’t think we’ll return to what it was like before the pandemic any time soon
Wijmenga thinks the first scenario is highly unlikely., but she doesn’t believe the university will remain as closed as it is now. ‘We’re exploring four scenarios’, she says. ‘The scenario we’re working with right now is sort of in the middle between the two extremes. I don’t think we’ll return to what it was like before the pandemic any time soon. Let’s hope the lockdown scenario doesn’t come true.’
The university is focusing on socially distanced education. The advantage, says Wijmenga, is that it’ll be easy to switch to regular education if the restrictions are relaxed. ‘We’ll also distinguish between lectures, small-scale on-site education, and exams, of course.’
The most important thing, she knows after a year of the pandemic, is the contact between lecturers and students and between the students themselves. That means the university needs to create study spaces and organise small-scale seminars. ‘Lectures are a fairly passive form of education. They work fine online, although we can do better than the makeshift solution we came up with this year. We’re looking to combine those two worlds, where both improve.’
When students physically come to the university, it should be because of added value, emphasises Wijmenga. Lecturers should have active, in-depth discussions with their students. Lectures could benefit from knowledge clips or the use of virtual reality. This change to activated learning, also known as ‘flipping the classroom’, had already begun before the start of the pandemic, she says. ‘But the pandemic did speed it up.’
There’s just one small problem: activated and new forms of digital education are labour-intensive, and teachers are already completely overworked. ‘We can’t ask teachers to accommodate all the new students and simultaneously innovate education.’
Over the past year, the university has tried to help them by supplying student assistants and a lot of hands-on support. ‘And for the future, there’s the Ruggesteun plan’, says Wijmenga. ‘This plan is aimed at providing more educational support and creating transition teams that will help activate education.’
We don’t want to be an online university; people have to be able to go to campus
Wijmenga would also love to create a pool of employees that can support lecturers in educational activities and seminars or who could supervise learning communities. Those people will not be recruited from the current group of teachers, since they’re already too busy.
‘We’re thinking of educators who might want to work more, or people of retirement age who’d like to keep working.’ But they’re also open to recruiting master students who are about to graduate and who want to do something different for a few years, or PhD candidates who are figuring out their next move. ‘Maybe some of them are really good with computers, or animation software. We’re casting a wide net.’
They have to, since the other Dutch universities are facing this problem, which means they’re also looking for new people. ‘We want to scout our own network and recruit from our pool of new graduates and doctors. Anyone who’s interested can already sign up. They’ll gain experience and we want to train them over the summer to make sure they’ll have a basic skill set.’
Even then, it won’t be easy. As long as people still have to keep their distance in the classroom, it will require a lot of room. ‘We hope that social distancing comes to an end after the summer, but we can’t count on that’, says Wijmenga.
Efficiency should help solve part of the problem. That means tight scheduling, and no empty classrooms. Perhaps, and this is just a thought, classes could be shorter? ‘But that’s something that’s up to the teachers themselves’, she says. ‘That’s what those brainstorming sessions are for.’
In spite of the disappointing covid numbers and the fact that the reopening of institutes of higher education has been postponed once again to April 26, she’s optimistic.
‘What will truly make a difference after the summer is that people will be vaccinated’, she emphasises. ‘We’ve seen the dramatic effect of this in other countries. Once the intense pressure on healthcare facilities is relieved, the problem will be much less severe. I think a lot of people will be vaccinated by the summer.’
That means the end of the summer also marks a definitive end to ‘hybrid’ education: on-campus classes that are simultaneously available online. After all, this form of education goes against the thing students cherish so much: contact. ‘We don’t want to be an online university. People have to be able to go to campus’, says Wijmenga. ‘We’re moving towards blended learning, part online and part on campus.’
Perhaps we can use picnic benches and tents to teach students
But Wijmenga doesn’t know what we can do until the summer. Institutes of higher education might be allowed to reopen slightly starting April 26, as long as everyone takes part in speed or self-testing, but there are still a lot of issues. ‘You can’t force people to self-test and until then, there will always be people who don’t feel safe’, she says.
The university won’t completely change educational activities when the end of the academic year is in sight. The current experiments involving field labs and the speed-testing lane are interesting, ‘but the question remains whether this is permanent or temporary? If any new strains pop up that are resistant to the current vaccines, we’ll have to keep testing. But if the virus doesn’t mutate, testing will ultimately go away.’
The biggest priority is ensuring that students can meet up again. Wijmenga hopes the former public library at the Oude Boteringestraat, which has been used before to provide extra space, can reopen to allow study associations to gather.
She also wants to do everything in her power to create more study spaces. For as long as that’s possible, at least. May will see the start of the next exam period. ‘We’re considering creating facilities outside’, says Wijmenga. ‘The weather will be nicer. Perhaps we can use picnic benches and tents to teach students in.’
Wijmenga emphatically hopes that people realise the pandemic has also led to good things. ‘I understand that students and staff are having a hard time. But we’re also learning some really valuable things: how to plan better, how to be independent, and how to tap into our creative sides. That’s something we shouldn’t just stay silent about. We should always look at both sides.’
Would you like to provide educational support as part of the Ruggesteun pool? More information about the available positions will be published on the Student Portal soon.