Just like in so many other countries the COVID-19 epidemic has had an enormous impact on Belgium, especially the universities and students. What the last seven to eight months have shown us is how incapable the leading figures of the Belgian universities (more specifically the Vrije Universiteit Brussel) are in dealing with this pandemic. So, what is to be done with the start of a new academic year and the growing uncertainty among students about what the future holds?
At the beginning of the lockdown, some infantile disorders emerged at the VUB (and other universities): poor communication, difficulties with the learning platforms to teach online among others.
We were able to forgive these troubles of the first few weeks, who didn’t have any problems adapting to this new way of life?
However, it did not stop at the first few weeks; these issues were sometimes still palpable at the end of the semester. That’s why in mid-May (a few weeks before the starts of the exams in Belgium), a cry of distress was launched by some students with the slogan: 'give us a voice'. (1) The distress call also included seven specific requirements to successfully complete the rest of the academic year 2019 - 2020. This included the demand for: guidance, correct teaching material, solutions for the financial situations, etc.
The response from the universities was quite limited: there had already been concessions to 'milder' deliberations during the June examination period, but nothing to solve the students' financial issues or the psychological problems they faced.
The impact on the international student community was disproportional (in 2018, +-23% of the VUB students were international students).
In the first months of the second semester international students were given a harsh choice: to either go back to their country or stay and risk their health. This egregious lack of care was worsened by the VUB’s apathy towards their needs:
- There were no adequate quarantine guidelines for the students who didn’t have the financial means to repatriate.
- No aid offered for those who were able to leave. Students not only had to pay their full tuition of 4000 euros a year and pay their full rent in order to keep their place in the school but were also forced to take out of pocket their ticket back home and any visa costs potentially implied in returning to Belgium.
- International students have no pre-existing social circle in the country, they essentially lose their only point of human contact with the loss of the university resources.
Amid this difficult situation, the VUB failed to offer leniency or even advice as its staff became even more unreachable during the quarantine, a problem that continues to this day. Given that this is a time-sensitive issue and that students have to juggle the demands of the Belgian government, their own government and the school this complete indifference shows a startling degree of ruthlessness and/or incompetence from the administration.
The summer and the new academic year
After the retakes in August, they (the universities) proclaimed how well they had dealt with the crisis. This theory stems from the overall good grades of successful students. A ridiculous way to 'measure' how well you have handled a pandemic. In the meantime, they’re still turning a blind eye to all the other problems students now face:
a) The mental health of many students (and the population in general) is deteriorating(2). The petition ‘give us a voice’ was signed about 25000 times.
b) Students still have financial problems, many paid during the lockdown for a room they were not using. Now at the start of the new academic year they are paying for a room they are not sure they will be able to continue using. And with the uncertain economic situation, more and more students are losing their jobs. According to a study by Febelfin among 1,005 16- to 30-year-olds (in May), almost half feel the financial impact of the crisis (3).
c) Communication is still as bad as during the lockdown, for example: class schedules were only released a week before the start of the new academic year. In ‘normal times’ this is done a lot sooner.
So, what do we demand? What will it take to get out of this crisis?
- More attention to the mental well-being of students. Online courses, the disappearance of normal campus life, not seeing friends and family has a major impact on this.
- Abolition of the enrolment fee, starting with a refund for the academic year 2019-2020.
- The VUB has to cancel the rent of all VUB rooms for the months when students were not living there. In addition, it must call on the public authorities to demand the same from private landlords, who in turn are covered by state aid.
- Students means all students, all measures must also apply to international students, it is only through international solidarity that we will emerge from this crisis.
- The financing of these measures must not lead to an increase in public debt or the budget deficit. This will be paid for later in the form of cuts, particularly in education. In order to finance them, an exceptional tax on capital must be introduced. The banks must also be nationalised without compensation. A public bank should be set up to redirect resources according to needs rather than profits.
The students will have to fight for this in solidarity with the labor movement. Only in a joint front with the working class and its unions can this historic demand of the labor movement become a reality.