Is 2019/2020 a “lost year” because of the crises Maastricht University has had to face? Will all this affect the intake of new students in September? Will students get their tuition fees back? Will UM continue to offer online education in the future? And how much does a crisis like this cost? These are just a few of the questions put to the Executive Board last Tuesday during a Q&A webinar on YouTube and Facebook.
One by one, the board members were interviewed in an improvised studio by master’s student of Public Policy and Human Development Steff Nagel. Each interview lasted about fifteen minutes. Viewers could use the chat box to ask questions. The planned setup was different, explains spokesperson Fons Elbersen afterwards. The webinar was supposed to involve “interaction between the three board members and the audience. Just before we went live, we had technical difficulties with the sound. That’s why everyone had to be interviewed separately.” Was the entire board supposed to be on this small stage together? No, says Elbersen, one member would have been in the studio and the other two would have been interviewed from a distance.
President Martin Paul was the first board member to be interviewed by Nagel, followed by Rector Rianne Letschert and, finally, Vice President Nick Bos. Their answers to Nagel’s sometimes very general questions won’t contain much new information for those who are keeping up to date with the Executive Board’s updates about the coronavirus. Some viewers did ask questions that had yet to be addressed, though. What about tuition fees, for example – will students be compensated if they incur a study delay because of the crisis? “That’s a topic we are currently discussing with the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU)”, replied Letschert. “There will be a joint position in that regard that also needs to be taken up by our ministry.”
Bos is the head of the crisis management team (CMT). What does this team do and who else is on it? “The composition of the team depends on the needs”, explained Bos. “Education is our first priority in this crisis.” The current CMT consists mainly of educational experts as well as experts on human resources, internationalisation, security and communication. One of their main tasks is to talk to the rest of the organisation to “find out whether the steps that have been taken are justified. These next few months will be difficult. That’s why open communication is very important”, stressed Bos. He even invited anyone who has a problem or suggestion and doesn’t know who to approach with it to email him directly.
It's too early to say whether the university will reopen for physical education in September, said Paul. “Will the pandemic respond to warm weather? Will a vaccine be developed? Of course, we all hope this situation will be over very soon.” A question from the chat: is it possible to start offering more online education? “Yes, of course this is a possibility”, said Paul. “We also try to gain experience from this situation so we can use it for the future. It’s also a big experiment we’re all in.” Vice President Bos is open to “new types of education” as well. However, he emphasised that online education must be in line with the Problem-Based Learning approach that is in the very DNA of UM.
“Is there anything you can already tell us about the financial loss UM will suffer?” Nagel asked the vice president. While he didn’t go into specifics, Bos said the financial loss will be “serious. Contract research funding is under pressure. And we’ll have to wait and see how this situation will affect student intake in September, international student intake in particular.” This also depends on how long the crisis will last, said Bos. “The numbers look good so far, but there’s a very real possibility that the admissions figures will disappoint.” Bos also pointed out that many of the people who have already applied to study at UM next semester did so before the crisis broke out, which means their situations may have changed. “But the university is doing its best to get and stay in touch with these people.”
Each board member was asked to provide a final piece of advice for staff members and students attending the webinar. “Everyone is struggling with the current situation”, said Letschert. “People are working from home and many of them also have to take care of their children. We have to accept that this is a difficult time for all of us. We do our best, but we can’t ask for the same level of productivity that we usually give.”