“Abolition of BSA is an example of a cheap score”

Lower House wants to abolish BSA, Maastricht is hesitant

10-11-2020

MAASTRICHT. The Lower House wants to get rid of the binding study advice. The House voted in favour of a motion by GroenLinks last week. The minister will have to talk to the education institutes to no longer make this advice ‘binding’. Student unions are enthusiastic, but education experts in Maastricht were not immediately convinced. “You have to be able to offer an alternative.”

A personal advice, in which it is up to the student to follow it or not, instead of a binding study advice. That is what GroenLinks wants and it is exactly what happens in the new Maastricht curriculum of Dutch Law and Tax Law (the split only occurs after the first year).

This is a two-year pilot, says vice dean Sjoerd Claessens. “With this new curriculum, we want to move away from studying merely to pass an exam. Instead of a traditional exam that yields ten credits, there are more test opportunities. If we allow BSA to hang over the student’s heads like the sword of Damocles, you undermine that idea.”

So you no longer have a beating stick, but you still have a hand to give that gentle nudge to steer the student in the right direction. “In doing so you change the tone of the conversation. We focus more on the student’s professional development. They learn to give and receive feedback, and reflect on themselves. Hopefully, should it appear that they are not suited to this, it will enable them to reach the decision together that it would be better if they quit.”

Intensive support

The support that is required for this, is intensive, says Claessens. “We took the chance to do it, because it is a small cohort, of about 250 students. But at European Law School – more than 450 first years – we still have a binding study advice. Maybe we could copy certain parts of the method of professional development from Dutch bachelor’s to ELS, but a similar coaching set-up is not feasible for such a large group. Tailor-made is expensive.”

And according to Claessens, that is what is necessary, if you want to abolish BSA. “Students are at an age where they feel everything will be alright. Even if they have to catch up on three blocks. Without advice or reflection, the idea that they can manage it all will continue to exist. Then you end up with long-term students, who pay low tuition fees while the government financing stops after three years.”

Professor of Education Wim Gijselaers agrees wholeheartedly with Claessens on that last point. “Studying for a long time is expensive. As a society, we decided at a certain moment that we no longer want to fund that. Lots of measures are connected to that. Limiting student financing for example, which was completely abolished later on. The binding study advice is also part of that, in particular because the propaedeutic year as a decisive moment of testing was dropped with the introduction of the bachelor’s and master’s structure.”

Clarity

According to Gijselaers, students are better off with a BSA. “You create clarity. Also, people respond to deadlines. If they are far away, they will postpone. And when someone is not about to make it – which you can see rather quickly – then as an institute you are just shoving the problem forward. For the student too. Besides, the BSA has forced institutes to supervise students better. After all, you have to compile a dossier as well as giving them interim advice.”

Petra Hurks, vice dean of Education at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, also thinks that abolishing BSA may lead to postponing the problem. “I can remember the time when students had one more subject to pass after ten years. That also causes stress and grief. The binding study advice is not just a note at the end of the year, it is a whole process. From the selection at the beginning to supervision by mentors and student advisors.  What you want to know is: does the study suit the person and is it likely that he/she will complete the programme. Do you actually need a binding study advice for that? I don’t know, you would have to do some research into that.”

Rabbits staring into the headlights

What about the stress that students experience because of BSA? Claessens believes that abolishment will reduce stress. “It is quite something, you cannot register for another study for six years after that. Many students don’t have a very good idea of the study they are about to do. That is already jumping in at the deep end. On top of that, you have to gain two thirds of your credits. Certainly in the case of large exams, which yield a lot of credits, a lot depends on one moment. What if you are having a bad day? Then you get the case of rabbits staring into the headlights of an oncoming car.”

Hurks wonders if the stress only comes from BSA. “If you are allowed to continue, but you are way behind, that will also stress you out. I think that we should be making students more resilient in general. That is why it is a good thing that initiatives such as the Well-being Movement exist. Teach students the best way to learn, how they can channel stress and how they can reflect upon themselves. That would help them much more.”

Small group

Gijselaers thinks that the number of students suffering stress as a result of BSA is not a great problem and that it offers a solution to those students. “You can take a test again; you have a talk with the Board of Examiners to whom you can explain your personal circumstances. There is room for misfortune in BSA. But suffering misfortune for a whole year may not be a coincidence. Then perhaps you are not in the right place.”

What about students who have received a negative binding study advice signing up for the same study programme at a different university? Gijselaers doesn’t think that this is a large group. “And only a small number of those makes it eventually. Abolishment of BSA is a very drastic measure for a rather small group. That sounds to me like an example of a cheap score.”