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“There is more to life than a cum laude”

“There is more to life than a cum laude”

Photographer:Fotograaf: flickr.com/Christian Hellmann

Student advisers: increasing pressure on students

MAASTRICHT. Pressure on students has increased in the past few years, claim Maastricht student advisers and counsellors. The list of possible causes is long: from binding study advice to parents who have (too) high expectations of their children.

The first thing mentioned by Pia Harbers, student adviser at European Studies, is the binding study advice (BSA). “That is something that worries me. Everything depends on your first year, anyone who does not gain the required 42 credits (out of sixty), must leave. You can’t afford too many distractions or wrong choices.” At the School of Business and Economics, the requirements are even higher: at least 47 credits. Robert Pans, head of student advisers at SBE and his colleague Wim Bogaert: “The transition time from school-leaver to student is very short. If you miss the first block because you don’t have a room yet, your visa hasn’t been sorted, or your finances haven’t been arranged, then you spend the rest of the year trying to catch up. This creates a tremendous amount of pressure.”

Harbers feels that compulsory attendance also increases stress. “You oversleep once, another time you are sick, and then your grandmother dies. Then what? Anyone who fails to attend three tutorials, has to repeat the block.” To come straight to the cum laude ruling: a single resit? Then no cum laude. Pans from SBE: “Sometimes a student comes in who is completely freaking out because of a resit. They think that they absolutely need that mark of distinction for the future. Just like two master’s degrees and three work placements. Our role is to put both feet on the ground. There is more to life than cum laude. And no, life is not always makeable, even though this generation may think so. The flexibility needed to deal with disappointment seems to be decreasing.”

Despite all those rules, dropout rates are not much greater than ten years ago, Harbers concludes. Even the study success grades are more or less the same. “The only advantage that the introduction of the BSA has had, is if you get through first year, you will complete your study. At the same time, I see an increase in mental problems and there is no place now for late developers or those who ‘develop differently’.”

Parents

In addition to pressure from the university, there is pressure from parents, who frequently support their sons or daughters financially. Henny Peeters, head of student advisers at the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life Sciences: “They often place all their bets on that one child, they want the best, but often ask a lot too. During the open days, it is often the parents who ask the questions. Recently a mother said that she hadn’t helped her son put his portfolio together, which is part of the decentralised selection process. ‘The UM stimulates independent learning, doesn’t it? But what do I do if the others have been helped?’ She has a point, while we as a faculty want to see such a self-made portfolio. That is when we see the authentic student.”

Pans from SBE: “The children have to ‘succeed’. We get phone calls from parents much more than before. They act as coaches, want to set up a plan with their child so that he or she can complete the study programme successfully.” He sighs and knows that his colleague Bogaert supports him: “But this is a university, it is about academic studies wanting to produce independent people. What kind of independence?” Harbers refers to rules such as compulsory attendance and binding study advice, which keep students ‘under the thumb’. “We feel that Problem-Based Learning is important, we want the student to take the lead in the tutorial groups, but at the same time we say that they can only miss two meetings, that they have to earn X number of credits.” Counsellor Heiny Eilkes confirms the contradiction: “On the one hand, we don’t want our students to go for a mere pass, but at the same time we want them to gain more life experience and become adults. To achieve the latter, they will have to be able to break free a little.”

Peers

Then we have the peers, present in great numbers on social media, who play their part, they say unanimously. Harbers: “We used to compare ourselves to our ten best friends, now we have an enormous group on Facebook and Instagram who all showcase their successes. There is competition in all areas: study, sports, musicality, creativity, knowledge of languages, appearance. These days, everything has to be right. A sports hero doesn’t just exceed in sports, he also has a clothes line or can sing and dance.” All those glory stories on social media give the student in trouble the impression that he/she is the only one having difficulties, says Peeters. “It is true that things go well for the majority, but if there is a problem, you don’t see it on Facebook. Nobody talks about that.”

Mental problems

Even though the majority gets through their study programme without too many problems, the number of students who do encounter problems is growing. The student advisers emphasise that they do not have hard evidence, but it is a fact that they are seeing more and more young people coming to them with complaints such as anxiety, burnout, depression, or addiction to such things as Ritalin (ADHD medication), energy drinks, or TV series. They frequently end up seeing counsellors such as Heiny Eilkes (also department head of SSC’s Student Counselling) or Greet Kellens. “We have had more cases of crises the last few years. Many concern foreign students. Everything has changed for them: a different country, sometimes a different continent, a new city, a strange language, far away from family and friends, a new study. All that together constitutes a huge stress factor. If such a student comes up against a real hurdle, he or she cannot fall back on the old network. Something that Dutch students, but also the German and Belgian ones do have. Moreover, these are often youths who come from a culture in which it is not customary to ask for help in the case of mental problems. We are often the first to whom they tell their story.”

In addition to the acute problems, Eilkes and Kellens say, “we are also there for students who are just not feeling well. Most of them cheer up after a couple of meetings or group sessions. It is important that people don’t wait too long making an appointment. The sooner you get help, the easier it is to intervene. If you wait too long, it often takes of lot of time to sort things out.”

It is not strange that students get into difficulties, emphasise the student advisers and counsellors. After all, a lot changes between the ages of 18 and 25: leaving home for the first time and being responsible for running your own household, the first serious relationship, often also the first time that a serious relationship ends, losing people dear to you, considering the future, thinking about who you are and what you want to do with your life. Setbacks are part of that. Just like failing. “Failing is normal,” says Harbers. “It is an important learning process. Just like fear: That is a normal reaction and preserves you from danger. But you don’t hear this kind of thing anymore. It is now only about employability. That never existed before. Back then, a university was supposed to produce people who could carry out scientific research and who had been taught to think. I hardly ever hear during a matching interview ‘I want to do research because I have lots of questions’. We are surprised if a prospective student is eager to learn. Everything has to stand up to valorisation, be useful.” There is a deep sigh: “I want students to come here because this is the only European Studies programme that is so much fun. Taking four years to do a bachelor’s is normal, one extra year doesn’t need to be negative, but that is often what you are told by the university and by the government. Employers are not always interested in your grades or honour programmes. Often it is about a click, does someone suit our company.”

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