MAASTRICHT. Second wave or not, Maastricht University is allowing its exchange programmes and work placements abroad to take place this academic year. Contrary to Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam, who feel that the uncertainty is too great. The UM’s foreign plans will have to meet certain requirements, says Martin Paul, president of the Maastricht Executive Board. “Safety above all.”
The UM’s criteria are clear: the colour code of a country must not be red. In addition, students may only travel to an orange-coded country if the exchange programme or work placement mostly takes place on campus. Courses that are entirely online must always be done from Maastricht (or the home country of the student).
The first semester started off reasonably well. In August and the beginning of September, most of Europe had code yellow, with regional COVID-19 hotbeds here and there. Restaurants received guests in the evenings in France and Italy, museums and theatres were open, and universities welcomed students inside their buildings. That has all drastically changed this autumn. “Our students are always free to return home, whether the country is yellow or orange,” says Martin Paul. “They can also remain, but only after consultation with the partner university and their faculty’s IRO [International Relations Office, ed.]. In the considerations, the local R value also plays a role, so whether it is safe.”
As many as 263 Maastricht students are on an exchange or work placement abroad at the moment; 94 per cent of them are in the European Union. That is about 30 per cent of the group that ‘normally’ goes abroad from the UM, Paul estimates. A number of students who are staying outside the European borders, are from the Faculty of Health Medicine and Life sciences – there is a double degree programme in Japan. At the bottom of this article, there is the story of Aimée Ploumen, a master’s student at the School of Business and Economics, who is studying in Rome at the moment.
In the whole of the Netherlands, Maastricht is the university with the most Erasmus+ grants, a European Commission subsidy programme. Erasmus+ has the advantage that it works with a force majeure (circumstances beyond one’s control) clause. A safety net that enables the Executive Board to take the risk of allowing the exchange to take place, Paul explains. Students are actually compensated if they have to return home in a rush because, for example, the guest university can no longer guarantee their safety or shuts the campus doors.
Not on an exchange
But what about students who have to stay in Maastricht? How can they gain their ECTS credits? An online exchange programme with the partner university is possible, it says on the UM website. The student can also participate in a UM-wide minor. Furthermore, they can take elective blocks at their own faculty.
Center for European Studies
Incoming exchange students are welcome in Maastricht, but are also subject to conditions, says Paul. “It takes place on a limited scale. They must, at any rate, self-isolate for ten days after arrival.”
Maastricht University’s Center for European Studies (CES) is good for hundreds of American students who do programmes here. But because of COVID-19, American partner universities are keeping their students in the US, so it is relatively quiet here. Six hundred US students cannot come to the UM this academic year, says Raimond Coumans, head of CES and Maastricht Summer School. “A considerable drain. But we are developing online alternatives for January and spring.” Because employees cannot promote the university programmes in the United States, expenses are reduced. In addition, CES employees are stepping up to help in other departments and faculties.
Lastly: what about YUFE? This is the Young Universities for the Future of Europe alliance, which is chaired by UM President Martin Paul. The first hundred YUFE students started in September with a so-called YUFE Introduction Offer (a maximum of two online subjects and an online YUFE activity, such as a language course, read Dora Christodoulou’s story below).
Mobility and education are the focus of this ambitious plan by the ten participating universities (and four non-academic partners), but there is not a lot of mobility at the moment. In an ideal world, YUFE students would take subjects at their home university as well as a number of elective subjects at one of the other partner institutes. In order to integrate well and become acquainted with the culture, YUFE students are encouraged to live in the guest country and possibly even do voluntary work.
Paul: “Travelling is unfortunately very difficult. And online is of course not as much fun as actually being there, but we do have a virtual campus where you do become emersed in the other country’s culture. You meet with fellow students and become acquainted with the education system of the foreign university online. It is also an enrichment as far as content is concerned. Take the University of Essex in Great Britain. There they will have a different view of ‘Europe’, European identity and Brexit than for example in Antwerp or Madrid.”
On an exchange in Rome
Aimée Ploumen (22) flew to sunny Rome on 14 September. “Italy was still code yellow at the time.” The university where she is taking some subjects is Libera Università Internazionale degli Studi Sociali Guido Carli (LUISS). By the way it is not her compulsory exchange from the School of Business and Economics. She did that previously at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. Ploumen is now doing an extracurricular master’s exchange. “I already gained my IB master’s diploma last August.” The plan to still go off in autumn, dates back to January. “We didn’t know at the time what COVID-19 would mean for the world.”
Initially, the university in Rome worked with a hybrid system, just like the UM: half online, half on campus. But Italy took rigorous action because of the COVID-19 infections. There is a curfew from ten o’clock in the evening until five o’clock in the morning, facemasks are compulsory, museums and theatres are closed, restaurants close at six o’clock.
Ploumen’s guest university has decided that from the beginning of this month there will be no more in-person sessions for non-first-year students. “I am only taking second-year master’s subjects.” So now, through sheer necessity, she is sitting at her computer. Something that she could have done from Maastricht.
“I am thinking about returning sooner. Not because it is dangerous or because I no longer want to be here – there is still enough to see and discover – but mainly because I don’t want to be quarantined during Christmas. My original plan was to fly back on 23 December. I will most likely bring that date forward a little.”
It is not an ‘ordinary’ exchange visit, that much is clear, but Ploumen is glad to have the opportunity. “I have learned a lot on an academic and personal level and met fun and interesting people. Rome with not too many tourists also has its advantages.”
“Monday is my YUFE day”
Dora Christodoulou is studying at no less than three universities simultaneously. She is a third-year student of European Studies at Maastricht University, but as a YUFE student she is taking two subjects and a language course at the Universities of Antwerp and Bremen. She is one of the hundred students who are part of the pilot that started last September.
Even though it is possible to replace credits from one’s own university through the YUFE programme, Christodoulou is taking extra subjects, which run until the end of this semester.
Everything is online because of COVID-19. What does her schedule look like? “Monday is my YUFE day. I log in for the German course at the University of Bremen in the morning. It finishes at one o’clock, which is exactly when my lecture starts at the University of Antwerp. That is where I am taking a master’s in Political Science. Later in the afternoon, I get to work on my minor in Globalization and Development here in Maastricht.”
Part of the YUFE ideology is that students study and live in the various European cities to experience the different cultures and languages first-hand. That is not possible because of the pandemic. A loss? “Of course it is a pity that the physical part is missed out on, but everyone has to be flexible these days. Besides, I do feel like I am also studying in Bremen and Antwerp. I think that I am getting a reasonable impression of the atmosphere and the education system there. It is quite special that I can study at three universities in one day from my room in Maastricht.”