The news we’ve all be waiting for – higher education can reopen

Thursday 22 April 2021

Students who spend most of their day in their student room, staff who turn living rooms into offices and where the separation between work and homelife becomes a very fine line. We’ve all been through it over the past year. From out of nowhere, we’ve been forced to work and study completely at home for nearly a year now. It was an overwhelming change that has taken its toll. Thankfully, there is now finally good news. As of 26 April, students will be able to return to our buildings once a week for lectures, and staff will also be able to occasionally work on our university of applied sciences campuses. Erica Schaper, chair of the NHL Stenden Executive Board, is delighted that measures have been relaxed and cannot wait to welcome everyone back.

Erica Schaper

‘The building had no soul’

Erica has missed it all: that sense of energy you feel from the students as soon as you walk onto the NHL Stenden grounds, the students who approach you at the main entrance promoting some project or event, and the quick chats in the corridors or at the coffee machine. “The building had no soul anymore,” says Erica. “You can usually see students everywhere, sitting working or having a laugh. It’s this energy that reminds you what a great university of applied sciences this is.” It’s therefore only natural that Erica is looking forward to a time when the buildings are filled once more with staff and students. Behind the scenes, people are working hard to set up the campuses so that they can be reopened safely on 26 April. Timetables are being adapted, walking routes set up and self-test procedures developed. “We still have to maintain 1.5 metres social distancing within the buildings,” says Erica. “If we spread classes over the whole of the day and evening, then this should work.”

Resilience

Staff and students are also keen to get back on campus. “Compulsory working and studying from home has been very demanding. Everything suddenly had to be done digitally, and many of our staff with young children were having to combine work with schooling. It’s been a hard time for everyone. The days run into each other and there is limited contact with colleagues, lecturers and fellow students. The resilience that has been shown is exceptionally praiseworthy.” Although most students have earned the credits they needed, Erica has noticed that they’ve particularly missed the personal coaching they normally get from lecturers. “In order to be able to better provide students with the coaching they’ve missed, we’re launching a recruitment campaign to attract 100 extra lecturers. Funding from the National Education Programme is being used to finance this.”

‘The key is still to keep meeting each other’

Although they do not outweigh the negative side of the corona crisis, there have been advantages and a lot has been learned over the past year. “In terms of digitalisation and ways of working, we have made huge progress in just a year’s time. I hope that we will be able to maintain the efficiency we’ve created.” Erica expects certain aspects of working and studying will continue to take place online, for instance large lectures or meetings with colleagues. Only time will tell just what the ‘new normal’ will be. “We’re now asking ourselves questions about what we can do digitally and what we do face-to-face. We don’t want to be a university of applied sciences that is only online. Things will be less dependent on time and place, but the key will still be to keep meeting each other.”

Future prospects

What will the future look like? Will we be able to fully return on campus in September? “We’re going to do all we can to be able to fully open again in September. Of course, it all depends on how COVID-19 develops in the next few months and on how quickly everyone gets vaccinated,” says Erica. Nonetheless, the situation will not immediately return to how things were. “Self-testing will probably still play a role and some activities will continue to take place online, especially those to do with knowledge transfer. Hopefully, we’ll be able to soon stop being a society in which we stay 1.5 metres away from each other.” Until then, Erica is simply looking forward to a time when we can all meet up again. “I’m looking forward to the great meetings and parties we’ll have to celebrate being able to see each other again,” she says enthusiastically. “The Study Start Week won’t just feel like a first week for the first-year students, but for all students and staff. It will be one great big reunion.” Erica hopes that everyone will quickly regain a sense of belonging, that students who had international plans for their studies will be able to carry them out, and that we will take on board the lessons we have learned. “We’ve had time to think about what really matters, namely having social contacts and a sound home base. We also now understand more than ever what the heart of education is: it’s the contact between students and between lecturers and students. I hope we remember that lesson.”