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Ministry of Foreign Affairs sees room for accommodating students kept from going to the USA

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The Ministry of Foreign Affairs finds that universities have adopted a much too strict interpretation of its travel advice for the United States. They shouldn't have forbidden students from going to the U.S. on exchange. The universities will now meet with the ministry to discuss the issue. In Leiden, some students are even considering suing the university. 

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In Utrecht, twenty students about to go to the U.S. on exchange heard from the university that they were no longer allowed to travel just a few days before departure. Feeling harmed by the decision, the students wrote a letter to the Executive Board. After all, not only had their study plans gone out the window, but they also lost a considerable amount of money because they had already bought plane tickets, travel insurance, and the like.

The university decided to halt exchanges to the US after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs changed the travel advice to that country from yellow to orange, on September 4. That means "only necessary trips" are allowed. "Although universities also find the news a bitter pill to swallow, we must follow the government's advice", Marieke de Bakker, head of Student Affairs, declared to DUB.

Students welcome in the U.S.
In their letter, the students say they don't understand the decision, as the ministry states on its website that the United States is making an exception for students, provided that they show all necessary documents. Talking to DUB, a spokesperson for the ministry explained that its travel advice is not compulsory. "I understand that the universities want to follow a single line. But, in this case, it would have been better to deviate from the ministry's advice. It's no coincidence that our website states that the United States are accepting students with all the papers. What is mandatory for those students is a self-quarantine of ten days once they arrive in the U.S. and testing negative upon coming back to the Netherlands. But I suppose that students going to the U.S. for a long time are willing to do that."

The universities think the ministry's positioning isn't clear enough. De Bakker: "We would like to work with a clear framework. For us, that meant the government's travel advice. The university can't discuss each month, for each country, if the current conditions allow for us to make any exceptions. For the time being, we will continue to use the travel advice for those leaving the Netherlands, not the advice for those entering the Netherlands, because that can change per country. But the universities will soon meet with the ministry to talk about this."

Big disappointment
Many of those twenty UU students are still upset about the sudden cancellation of their exchange. "I'm not sure if the Executive Board fathoms the effect of not having a clear message about what we can do in the next few months, in terms of education. That is so stressful. Nobody has responded to our letter so far," complains Niamh Munglani, one of the students affected.

Marieke De Bakker acknowledges how disappointed the students must feel. "But we did warn them long ago about the risk of going on exchange right now. We did inform them that their exchange would be cancelled if the government's travel advice changed. We got in touch with the students as soon as we learned that the advice was going to change. Soon after, we sent them an e-mail about what that change meant for their exchange."

UCU no exception
According to Niamh, the university wasn't very consistent. "We heard that some UCU students did get the green light to travel to the U.S.A. That makes things even more confusing."

UCU confirms that one of its students has indeed received permission to travel, but that message was sent due to a miscommunication about the internal coordination regarding the consequences of the new travel advice. In total, eleven UCU students went to the U.S., of which ten had already arrived there before the change. The latter are subjected to the same policy applied to all UU students who were already in the U.S.: they are advised to come back, but that's not compulsory.

Taking it to court
The UU students who were still in the Netherlands on September 4 did not travel to the U.S. If they go anyway, they run the risk of not having the credits earned abroad recognised by the examination board. Moreover, they would not be able to count on any support if their studies are delayed because of Covid-related issues surrounding their trip. 

Other Dutch universities are facing the same issue. Some students in Leiden are so mad that their trip was cancelled last minute that they're considering suing the university to be compensated for some of the costs incurred. 

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