Students may be "sick and tired of zooming", as this sign says, but they'll have to wait a little longer. Photo: DUB

Higher education really cannot reopen any sooner, says Dutch PM

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A call by parties GroenLinks and SGP to ease the lockdown restrictions on higher education failed to gain sufficient support in the House of Representatives.

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Last Monday, the Dutch government announced that higher education institutions will stay in lockdown for another three weeks. If the infection rates permit it, restrictions may be eased slightly at the end of March, allowing students to get back to the campus one day a week.

Minor effect
Can't that happen any sooner? That's what the leader of the GroenLinks party, Jesse Klaver, asked outgoing Prime Minister Mark Rutte (VVD) in a Parliamentary debate last week. “Because, if we go by the recommendations of the Outbreak Management Team, if combined with rapid testing, reopening higher education institutions will have a minor effect”.

Klaver acknowledged that there are risks that come with speeding up campus access, but considering the mental health of young people, he thinks there is a greater risk in keeping them away from campus for longer. And what about the much higher numbers of people soon being allowed to go shopoing? Why isn’t higher education given priority?

More than happy
Rutte answered that he would be “more than happy” to relax the restrictions for higher education, but it’s still way too early to do that responsibly. He denied that higher education could have opened up if the number of customers allowed in shops had remained the same. In his view, the very limited effect this would have on the number of cases cannot be compared with opening up university and university of applied sciences campuses. “That is something totally different.”

He wouldn’t go any further than promising that the Cabinet will decide on March 23 whether restrictions for higher education can be relaxed slightly on March 31. By that time, he believes they will be able to see the first results of the rapid testing pilots, although that's perhaps a bit too optimistic.

First in line
Whatever the case, Rutte believes we first have to see some positive developments. If the number of hospital admissions stabilises sometime soon, then higher education will be the first in line. “Then we might well be able to do something in a couple of weeks”, he stated.

The motion that Klaver penned alongside the SGP proposed to reopen campuses from Monday, March 15, but it didn’t achieve a parliamentary majority. The four coalition parties supported the Prime Minister’s reasoning and voted against it.

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