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Europe: Cautious re-opening plans

EducationWorld July 2020 | International News

First-year students are set to be a priority across Europe when campuses tentatively reopen in autumn (September), to avoid an increase in dropout rates — but low reliance on tuition fees means there is less pressure to restart in-person teaching for some continental institutions.

There is a patchwork of different approaches across the continent. German universities do not expect physical lectures to resume until 2021, but some countries, such as Denmark, hope to open almost as normal come the new academic year. Dutch universities have been among the most proactive in reassuring prospective students: “Dutch universities are open,” the Association of Universities in the Netherlands stressed in May.

In reopening, European universities are freer to remain cautious and to be honest with prospective students because they are far less dependent on tuition fees, some institutional leaders told Times Higher Education. “We will not go as far as certain US universities,” says Prof. Robert-Jan Smits, president of Eindhoven University of Technology. He says he is “shocked” by some US institutions for “giving the impression” that student life would be “safe and normal” come the autumn, because they “need the cash”.

At the Sorbonne University, “we don’t depend on students (financially),” says Marie-Celine Daniel, the institution’s vice president of education and lifelong learning. “The responsibility we have is to be candid that their experience of Paris from September onwards is going to be disappointing” because of ongoing restrictions introduced to fight the spread of the coronavirus, she adds.

Staggering campus opening hours to avoid the rush hour has also been mooted in France, says Prof. Daniel. “We don’t have that many rooms,” she explains. As a result, big lectures will likely stay online, and students might have to be rotated on to campus for face-to-face group work, perhaps a third at a time.

In such a rota system, first-year students would get priority on campus, she says. “We want them to be autonomous, but we know they are not autonomous when they come into university,” says Prof. Daniel. The risk is that a lack of physical contact stunts their social life and education, she says, leading to dropouts later on.

In Sweden, “for first-year students, the welcoming part is one of the priorities”, says Marita Hilliges, secretary-general of the Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions. If new students do not settle in socially, it could lead to a higher dropout rate later, she warns: “It could be harder for them to find their way.”

At the more cautious end of the scale are German universities, where lectures are expected to remain online and physical teaching restricted to hands-on training, until at least spring 2021, says Peter-André Alt, president of the German Rectors’ Association. “It’s somewhat looking into a crystal ball,” he says, but “if you want to avoid infections, you need to avoid mass meetings”. However, labs and libraries are beginning to reopen, he adds.

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