Photographer:Fotograaf: archive UM
MAASTRICHT. There will be no more Saudi Arabian medical students coming to Maastricht. The decision was taken by the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences. The Saudi government set too many requirements to which the faculty did not wish to adhere.A committee will be formed to investigate how this happened. “We want to learn from the mistakes,” says Jan-Joost Rethans, programme director at the medical faculty.
This decision marks the temporary end of the ambitious programme by the Saudi government to send dozens of students to study in Maastricht every year, with King Abdullah Scholarships (KAS) worth 32 thousand euro per person. It must be said that those numbers were never reached. A parallel programme at the University of Groningen will continue to exist, because they conformed with the key requirement set by the Saudi government right from the start: that at least the last part of the study would be in Dutch, including internships in Dutch hospitals. The Maastricht faculty changed over to English at the beginning of the programme in 2007, which meant that the students needed to go abroad for internships. Officials in the Saudi capital of Riyadh were and still are against this. Over the past two years, negotiations have taken place regularly, but without much result. Last year, things got so out of hand that Riyadh refused to send a new batch of students. New negotiations followed, after which the UM conceded, albeit with conditions. Rethans: “We said okay, the master’s will be in Dutch, which means that they will have to learn Dutch, but we want the entry level of English to be raised to IELTS 6.0, so that we will need to pay less attention to that aspect. And we want no more interference from the Saudi government with the internship locations. As it happens, they were setting more and more requirements; especially African destinations did not meet with their requirements, with the exception of Stellenbosch in South Africa, which just about made the grade. We almost had to ask permission for every student’s internship location.”
This really started to become tiresome for FHML, more so because there were increasing complaints even from Stellenbosch about the Saudi master’s students’ behaviour. There appeared to be similar shortcomings to what the Maastricht evaluation report about the KAS students said: little respect for members of staff, arriving late, not doing homework.
Maastricht started to worry about its good name. Rethans: “There were similar complaints from Ireland and Australia. We felt trapped. Were we developing an international Medicine programme or were we in fact trying to placate the Saudi government? It turned out to be mostly the latter, actually. When the Saudis refused our conditions, we felt that we should end it, and accept no more new students.”
The decision to stop was made at the beginning of March, but was kept quiet at the request of the Saudi negotiating partners. First it had to become clear how the present students would continue. There was disagreement about this too. The faculty wanted the master’s students to complete the programme in English; the Saudi’s wanted everyone to switch to Dutch immediately. The compromise entailed that the present master’s students would continue in English, all students in the preparation pre-med programme at UCM and in the bachelor’s will be given Dutch language lessons for one year. Once they have met the language entry requirements for the master’s programme, they will be able to do their internships in the Netherlands.
Rethans: “We told the Saudis: if this is the way you want it, then you have to come and tell them yourselves.” Indeed, the ambassador and the cultural diplomat arrived at the beginning of May. Rethans: “The students didn’t like it, they had lots of questions, and the meeting lasted a lot longer than planned. Still, we now feel that it will be to their advantage. Because of the demands made by their government about the internship locations abroad, they have suffered irrevocable delays, which will no longer be an issue. The exhausting travelling arrangements – a number of weeks in Australia, then Ireland, et cetera – will be a thing of the past too. I think the faculty has underestimated the severity of this.”
In a meeting for staff, some days later, nobody protested against the decision to stop. Rethans: “Most people were glad that we were not going to plod along, and the question therefore was: How could this happen?”
The faculty will investigate the matter, “because we want to learn from our mistakes”. As to what the mistakes are, Rethans does not want to anticipate. One thing is clear: this is not the end of the international medical programme. Rethans: “We will plan a new direction, in time we will seek other countries with which we can make agreements about groups of students. That is happening now with Kuwait, who will send students here for the same amount as the Saudis. Of course this decision will cost the faculty money. This is painful but why do we do it, for the money or for education? The relationship with Riyadh is otherwise unmarred. Once the Global Medicine programme has been established, we can see if they want to participate again. At the moment, this is still what they want, but under their terms. The other contacts with universities in Saudi Arabia, where the UM coaches lecturers, provides block books and even a whole curriculum, will continue as before.”