Belgian universities aim to combat the ‘eternal student’

Belgian universities aim to combat the ‘eternal student’
Students at the Free University of Brussels © VUB

Two of Flanders’ five universities have come out in support of a plan to tackle the problem of students who coast through year after year of study without ever passing their first-year level.

The idea came from the university of Leuven, which has introduced a rule that from the start of the academic year in 2021, all first-year students will be given two years to complete their first-year classes.

That, says the university, works towards cutting down on the number of years some students remain at university without advancing, while allowing for personal circumstances that might hold a student back, such as illness or bereavement.

Now, as Het Nieuwsblad reports, the Free University of Brussels (VUB) has expressed interest in the KU Leuven plan.

There are for the time being no concrete plans to introduce such a system, but it would be a way to force young people to focus on their first-year subjects,” Jan Danckaert, vice-rector for educational matters, told the paper.

In any case, we first want to discuss the idea with our students,” he said. “The question that needs to be settled is what happens when a student doesn’t meet the target. Besides that, we would want to take part in inter-university cooperation, so that students didn’t begin shopping between universities.”

KU Leuven also has not announced the detail of possible sanctions if students fail their first year more than once. One possibility would be to exclude the student from any similar course of study.

Other universities, meanwhile, are less convinced. While they agree that the “eternal student” is a problem, they regard the KU Leuven approach as unworkable.

That is a very tough measure,” said Peter De Mayer, spokesperson for Antwerp university. “In most cases, you can see clearly after two years when someone has no chance of succeeding, but in some cases there really is a genuine reason why someone has to repeat classes. Above all, we foresee that the measure will not necessarily reduce the length of studies. Someone who is excluded from a particular course could just begin another course, and set off for another three years.”

For Martin Valcke of Ghent university, the split is unlikely to lead to much shopping among universities.

Young people base their choice on other factors, such as the proximity of the university,” he said. “But there is a risk of chaos as each university comes forward with its own rules.”

The universities agree that a common approach is best, and that education minister Ben Weyts (N-VA) needs to “take the bull by the horns,” according to Valcke.

The minister, meanwhile, declined to comment on the KU Leuven measure, or on any need for a uniform approach.

His office did however point out that there are already some preventive measures in place, such as the rule that no student can begin a master’s without first gaining a bachelor’s degree.

The pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction,” Weyts said in a statement. “Then not only does the student pay a high price, but the universities and society do too.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times

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