Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes
MAASTRICHT. It is still unclear whether Saudi Arabia will send medical students to Maastricht again. There are no new students this year, because the Maastricht programme does not suit the Saudi government. Yesterday, Wednesday 8 October, negotiations took place with the Saudi cultural attaché from The Hague. The UM is hoping for a recommencement, but not at all costs.
“In a way it is a good sign,” says the co-ordinator of the special ‘Saudi’ taskforce, professor Geertjan Wesseling, “that they have appointed a cultural attaché in the embassy in The Hague as of October. Until now we worked with the cultural attaché in Berlin, who managed the Saudi grants programme in Western Europe (???). To me this is an illustration that they want to remain active in the Netherlands.”
For a little while this summer, this was no longer certain. It was then that the Saudi government informed the Maastricht Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences (FHML) that it had to adhere to the original set-up of its grants programme. This meant: preferably a curriculum in Dutch but especially internships (work placements) in the Netherlands. After all, for the Saudis it was also about the cultural submersion of these students in the receiving country. Also, they pay a considerable amount: 32 thousand euro per student per year. However, Maastricht University had decided quite soon after the start of the project in 2007 that the programme would be in English and internships would be in English-speaking countries. Last spring, enough was enough for the Saudis: they sent no new students, also because more and more complaints from the students about how things were run at the UM were reaching Berlin. Since then, there have been negotiations, but so far without a clear outcome.
Observant’s interview with Geertjan Wesseling took place before the negotiations last Wednesday, between the new cultural attaché, rector Luc Soete, dean Albert Scherpbier and Wesseling himself.
Wesseling: “I have proposed four options. The first complies with the present situation, an English programme and internships abroad. The second one: the students learn Dutch and do their internships in the Netherlands. The third: internships in Saudi Arabia. The fourth: they only do their bachelor’s here.”
Wesseling feels that options two, three and four are the least appealing. The last two are not in keeping with the original aims and the Dutch variant has great disadvantages too. It is the model used in Groningen, the other faculty where Saudi Arabia sends its medical students. Wesseling: “It is almost impossible for them to learn Dutch well enough to be able to treat patients. The number of dropouts is high and the others have incurred great delays, they are way behind on schedule. We already have four graduates, another five are almost there; in Groningen they have none. And where we want the students to actively participate during their internships, to carry responsibility, deal with patients, in Groningen it is more about observation. We really don’t think that is enough.”
So he hopes for a continuation of the present situation, with possible adaptations should the Saudis request so. Wesseling: “I have the impression that the attaché will agree with the arrangement if the students also agree. The greatest problem is the inconvenience caused by travelling. For example, if we organise ten weeks in Brisbane (Australia), eight weeks in Dublin and eight weeks in South Africa, with time back in Maastricht in between, they would rather have a longer continuous period in one place. But that is not always possible, because in Dublin, for example, you cannot do surgery.”
On a social level, it is not always easy either: a number of Saudi women are married, some have their children with them. Separate arrangements have to be made for them.
In the meantime, one of the foreign destinations (India, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Ireland and the United Kingdom) has been cancelled anyway: Nairobi in Kenya.
Wesseling: “There were four Saudi students there and they have returned prematurely at their own request. Three women and a man, the man encountering a threatening situation on the streets, the women never leaving their accommodation at all. It is not safe; we are not allowing any Dutch students to go there anymore either. We recently also brought back four students from Tamale in Ghana, but that was because of the Ebola risk. Safety is an important issue. The Saudis cannot really be persuaded to go to third-world hospitals. They find that too confronting, scary. There are three people to a bed there who are sicker than one in a single bed here. Diseases such as tuberculosis, aids, malaria, and the risk of accidents with injections; that is a big issue for them.”
Wesseling had to deal with a lot of criticism after the previous article about the Saudi students in Observant 35, June 5. Under the heading ‘Row over Saudis’ he was critical of the students’ attitudes: absenteeism, not keeping agreements, substandard participation in the tutorial groups, poor study results. “I received an angry telephone call from Berlin, in which I was asked what the idea was. I explained that it was a faithful reflection of my intentions and also of how the press, including the university press, here works.”
The students themselves were outraged too. They didn’t express this in the form of letters to the editor; Observant received only one e-mail from a Saudi student inquiring as to the possibility of a letter to the editor weeks after publication, but the actual letter never arrived. The students did turn against Wesseling: “They were shocked, went into a huff, and didn’t understand what I wanted to achieve. If they ever receive criticism, it is always individually, for example when they don’t come to a meeting. Never as a group. They find that hard to deal with. So in reference to the article we arranged a round-table discussion, with twenty students, including their year representatives. I explained to them what was expected of them, things that I had also said to the attaché. There were negotiations too, with the bachelor’s co-ordinator, with the master’s co-ordinator and the year representatives. All with favourable outcomes: they are present more often and the results have improved.”
What also helps, says Wesseling, is the increasingly varied composition of the tutorial groups. “The aim of having them filled half with European students has still not been achieved, but it has reached 40 per cent. That works well for everyone, as Europeans, including the Dutch, are often more critical and the Saudis who are very much focussed on their own group, are opening up a little. Education has improved.”