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Hello Leiden. How’s it going? Minister Van Engelshoven pays online working visit to Leiden University

Teaching during the corona crisis, the high workload and the challenges faced by the Faculty of humanities. In an online working visit to Leiden University on 12 October, Minister for Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven, discussed the hot topics of the day with the Executive Board, lecturers and members of the University Council. ‘Who can stand in for a Sanskrit lecturer?’

The working visit was initially supposed to be to Campus The Hague, but because of the corona measures it was moved online instead, to Kaltura. ‘It’s a pity, but it’s a sign of the times,’ said Rector Carel Stolker. Van Engelshoven was keen to find out how the teaching was going. ‘Everyone has realised the importance of continuity, but students and staff are constantly having to quarantine. How is the virus affecting your work, your operationality?’ Vice-Rector Hester Bijl concurred that continuity was a challenge, and noted that the staff were doing all they could to ensure that the teaching would continue.

‘How is the virus affecting your work, your operationality?’ 

Teaching new style

Several lectures explained to Van Engelshoven how, thanks to a huge amount of effort, the teaching is mainly online and in person if possible. ‘I record my lectures in advance,’ said Dirk Visser, Professor of Intellectual Property. Students watch them and can ask any questions at interactive sessions. It might even be a better way of learning than the classic lecture method, he said. ‘But you have to teach this kind of class in pairs so that one of you can talk while the other monitors the chat.’ Archaeologist Joanne Mol mainly gets her students to work on assignments and quizzes. ‘What about practicals? Can they still go ahead?’ Van Engelshoven asked. Practicals such as fieldwork have to be in person, Mol answered. But that is only possible in smaller groups, which means lecturers have to teach the same practical multiple times. 

Ever-increasing workload

Good IT support is crucial to lecturers, said Bart de Smit, Vice-Dean of the Faculty of Science. They are trying to support lecturers through a single helpdesk because otherwise they’ll be driven to despair. Lecturers’ workloads have only increased during corona, said Professor of Korean Studies, Remco Breuker, and brand-new member of the University Council (UR). ‘With all the effort being put into teaching, now the research is under pressure.’ Historian Manon van der Heijden called for more balance and a different rating system for teaching and research. ‘But that mustn’t become a paper tiger with even more rules.’

‘It’s my generation that will have to clear up the mess left behind by corona.’

Mess left behind by corona

Bas Knapp, a student UR member, stood up for student interests. ‘The government’s investments are mainly going to business, whereas education looks set to fall by the wayside. But it’s my generation that will have to clear up the mess left behind by corona.’ Breuker and Knapp volunteered their services for a new taskforce to consider the future of higher education. The minister said she appreciated the offer, while countering the criticism that the government had invested so little in education. 

Mental health

Van Engelshoven was eager to hear how students are managing to get through the corona crisis. Vice-Rector Hester Bijl explained that, after a few teething problems, many of them had managed the transtion to online reasonably well. But their mental health was a point of concern, she added. ‘After all these months, many people feel there isn’t much give anymore,’ said Willemijn Nieuwenhuijs, Head of Student Support Services. The study advisers and student psychologists are in great demand. Was it the same group of students that would turn to them before corona, Van Engelshoven asked. ‘Partly, like international students and students with a disability, but the group requesting help is definitely widening,’ said Nieuwenhuijs. Mieke Cabout, Coordinator of Healthy University, spoke about the Healthy University@Home programme. Online workshops and advice give students and staff tips on how to get through this difficult time.

‘Take the rapid geopolitical developments alone. We need experts in Russian or African Studies, for example, if we are to stand any chance of understanding the world.’

Who can stand in for a Sanskrit lecturer?

The humanities received special attention during the visit, as Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Mark Rutgers, explained how his faculty was facing extra challenges. Humanities lecturers are not as easy to replace if they fall ill or have to quarantine – who can stand in for a Russian or Sanskrit lecturer? There are various programmes, such as Assyriology, that are only taught in Leiden in the Netherlands, and are rare in Europe too. This makes it very important, as Stolker also emphasised, that enough funding continues to be available for these programmes, which generally have low numbers of students. Ineke Sluiter, Professor of Greek Language and Literature, highlighted a difference between PhD research in the humanities and at the Faculty of Science. PhD candidates there generally work on their supervisor’s research, but in humanities their research is often theirs alone and the supervision amounts to a labour of love. 

Better understanding of the world

Vice-Dean Mirjam de Baar listed some positive developments at the Faculty. Humanities programmes are very popular at the moment and student numbers are increasing. A recent job market survey revealed that 70% of recent humanities graduates had found a job within two months. Van Engelshoven said she appreciated the importance of humanities: ‘Take the rapid geopolitical developments alone. We need experts in Russian or African Studies, for example, if we are to stand any chance of understanding the world.’

Study together

The impending press conference on Tuesday 13 October was mentioned at the end of the visit, but Van Engelshoven was unable to reveal anything about the new measures that would be announced. Martijn Ridderbos, Vice-Chairman of the Executive Board, explained how the University’s crisis team had gone about its work over the past months. The guidelines of the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) took precedence, he said, but being able to keep the University buildings open was crucial. ‘It’s so important to our students to be able to study together in a safe environment every now and then.’ Van Engelshoven thanked everyone for the illuminating examples from their personal experience before rushing off to her next meeting on – what else would it be? – corona and education.  

Tekst: Linda van Putten

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