Will we have classes in theaters anytime soon? Photo Pixabay

Covid debate: higher education could be more creative, says PM


Expected to announce a hard lockdown tonight, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last week that universities and universities of applied sciences should be “as creative as possible” in looking for alternative locations to provide in-person education for students.

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“So many theatres that are currently suffering are willing to make their facilities available to the education sector on a much larger scale”, he told parliament last week. “The crisis necessitates creative solutions like this.”

In October, UU Rector Henk Kummeling dismissed the idea of renting theatres, stadiums and movie theatres, saying there are no such plans.

Not locked down
When higher education is not subject to a lockdown and students can still attend classes as long as social distancing measures are in place, institutions are left with a sudden lack of space, Rutte explained during a lengthy parliament discussion about the Covid-19 measures.

The solution therefore lies in a creative search for alternative locations. “I know this is something the sector is working on,” Rutte said, adding that the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, was “champing at the bit” to discuss this in the House.

MPs were not entirely reassured, however, given that most students are still being taught online, with little prospect of a change in the near future. Rob Jetten (D66) and Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) suggested that rapid Covid testing could make more education possible on campuses.

The two parties joined forces to table a motion calling on the government to set up rapid testing sites in January to provide students and teaching staff with a “greater scope for in-person education and on-campus exams.”

This was music to the ears of a number of universities, universities of applied sciences and vocational colleges, with some of them even announcing that they would be happy to serve as a living lab for such a policy, with rapid testing and crowd control.

But searching for more creative opportunities for in-person encounters may not be the wisest strategy. The threat posed by the virus is still acute. Klaver proposed that a short, sharp lockdown of two weeks for the Netherlands as a whole might work better than the current, cautious lockdown in which some sections of the economy remain open while others are compelled to keep their doors closed.

The PM conceded that this is an option, perhaps even inescapable if measures to control the virus continue to be ineffective. “Should we go much further in education? Should we go much further in non-essential retail? These are very difficult issues with far-reaching economic and social consequences.”

This morning, the cabinet held a crisis meeting about the surge in corona infections despite the partial lockdown. The Prime Minister is holding a press conference today at 7:00 pm, during which he is expected to announce even stricter measures.

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