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‘We will offer a warm welcome to our students, both in person and online’

The University buildings are partially reopening to students. And first-years will be able to discover real-life Leiden or The Hague during the introduction weeks this summer. Vice-Rector Hester Bijl describes what will be possible once more at the ‘one-and-a-half-metre university’. ‘We want to provide an academic education and a support network.’

Figuring out how best to reopen the University for in-person teaching has been – and still is – a real conundrum, says Hester Bijl. As Vice-Rector on the Executive Board she is responsible for the University’s teaching. She has also been named as the next Rector Magnificus. Bijl is pleased that students can partly return to the campus. From 8 June, students have once again been able to study at the University Library and faculty libraries, via an online reservation system. And on 15 June, some forms of small-scale teaching resumed, such as practicals in labs and the supervision of final-year students and students who, for various reasons, are finding online study at home difficult.

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl

Exams

Some exams will also be held on campus, but that is not yet possible for all exams. Bijl: ‘With some online exams, you have to invigilate, just like with in-person exams, and proctoring makes that possible. This is sensitive of course because of privacy. We understand people’s concerns and are discussing these with the University Council. Digital proctoring is a last resort. If an alternative form of examination is available – online or in person – that is what we will use.’

Social network

In the meantime, the entire University is working hard on roadmaps for the upcoming academic year. What will the first semester be like? ‘We now know how much capacity there is in the one-and-a-half-metre university and are giving priority to classes where your physical presence really does add something.’ These are mainly practicals, workgroups and tutor groups for new bachelor’s and master’s students. Bijl explains: ‘First-year bachelor’s students will be welcomed in small tutor groups of 10 to 15 students with a student and a lecturer at tutors. These groups will also serve as a social network. New students will therefore be able to get to grips with the degree programme, and their academic education and their social network will receive plenty of attention. We will offer a warm welcome to students, both in person and online.’

Introduction weeks such as EL CID are going ahead. First-years can come to Leiden and The Hague, but not all at the same time.

Extra coaching

New master’s students will receive extra coaching, at their faculty and online. The University is also looking into on-campus options for other groups of students. Large lectures will continue online for the time being. ‘We can make these appealing with the aid of videos and interaction such as digital question and answer sessions.’

Brain teaser

Bijl notes that the unpredictability of the corona pandemic makes it difficult to look very far into the future. ‘It’s a real brain teaser because we have to take account of the one-and-a-half-metres rule and the time slots that the government has imposed to reduce demand on public transport.’ As of 15 June, universities will only be able to teach between 11:00 and 15:00 and then after 20:00. ‘We are hoping that these hours will be extended for the new academic year, so that we can offer more on-campus campus. It’s worth noting that online teaching has meant progress for some groups such as international students who are unable to be here and students with a chronic illness.’

Exploring Leiden or The Hague

Fortunately, the new first-year students will be able to meet one another in real life as well as in pixels during the introduction weeks. EL CID, OWL (international students) and HOP (students in the Hague) will partially be in town just like the old days. There will be an online programme, but students will spend at least one day in Leiden or The Hague in groups of 15 to give them a chance to see everything with their own eyes. ‘Exploring town in a group, visiting your degree programme’s building, discovering new cafés and making new friends: it’s all possible, only not with 100 people in one go,’ says Bijl. EL CID is therefore spread across two weeks this year, from 5 to 19 August, to prevent things from becoming too busy. First-year students will also be able to get to know the associations in a corona-appropriate way, regardless whether this means joining a rowing club or finding somewhere where you can play music or just meet other students.  

‘What I would say to students is: keep up the good work and tell us if you’re at the end of your tether.’

Adrenaline

As Vice-Rector, Bijl has a weekly meeting with the leaders of the University Council parties. She is also in communication with the Leiden University Student Platform and the assessors, the students from the faculty boards. What have students been telling her about studying in a time of corona? ‘Most of the students are resilient and have set to work in an admirable fashion. The number of students sitting exams is the same as before. But I’ve also heard many students and lecturers say they’re beginning to run out of steam. At the start, adrenaline kept them going as they threw themselves into the switch to online teaching, but sustaining this is exhausting.’

Discuss your concerns

Bijl is aware that the uncertainty about the situation causes extra stress. Internships and trips abroad have been cancelled and it is unclear when these will be possible again. ‘What I would say to students is: keep up the good work and tell us if you’ve reached the end of your tether. Talk about it with your study adviser or student psychologist. They are now offering extra consultations. Or call the student helplinevoor studenten. You can also discuss your concerns with your fellow students. You’re not alone.’ 

‘With online coffee breaks, there is more of a sense of togetherness.’

Recharged batteries

And what would Bijl say to lecturers? ‘We are extremely proud of how quickly you moved our teaching online. It’s really impressive and I realise that it must have taken – and still does take – a lot of energy. Particularly if you have young children. Let’s all take a few weeks off during the summer holiday, so that we can start the new academic year with recharged batteries.’ Lecturers can receive extra technical support for their digital classes from ICLON and the Centre for Innovation, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Bijl: ‘Innovative teaching methods are being introduced at an accelerated pace and the teaching will benefit from this in the long term. I really do believe in the power of a combination of online and in-person teaching.’

More contact

What else has struck Bijl in her conversations with lecturers? ‘There is more of a sense of togetherness. Lecturers now have an online coffee break and share experiences and best practices. They help one another. We can see the same with policymakers. I talk to the programme directors and vice-deans more often than I used to, for example. Before the crisis that was once a month but now it’s once a week. The contact may be online but it’s more often, which gives us more of a shared purpose. That gives you the energy to work together on the same challenges.’

Bijl: ‘These are very strange times for all of us, regardless whether you’re a student, lecturer, vice-rector or rector.'

New Rector

At the next dies natalis, 8 February 2021, Hester Bijl will succeed Carel Stolker as Rector Magnificus. How does it feel to become the new Rector at this unique time? ‘These are very strange times for all of us, regardless whether you’re a student, lecturer, vice-rector or rector. I really hope that the situation will gradually return to normal, but much will remain uncertain for a longer period of time. Fortunately, I know the University really well because I have already been on the Board for four years and am responsible for the University’s teaching. I’m no newcomer and that will definitely be an advantage.’

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