Nieuws - 8 maart 2012

Survey - Study stress: the new norm

Today's students in the Netherlands are under increasing pressure to achieve. Where they used to be able to take their time over getting a degree, interspersing courses with internships or voluntary work, they are now expected to graduate as fast as possible. Resource asked around about stress levels. 'I couldn't sleep and often cried at night.'
Text: Rob Ramaker, Linda van der Nat, Nicolette Meerstadt

Propping up the bar at all hours, lying abed till four pm, hanging out with friends and occasionally getting your course books out. This persistent caricature perception of the lazy eternal student bears little relation to the facts. More than 40 percent of students in the Netherlands experience levels of stress severe enough to affect their private life negatively. They suffer from loss of sleep, fear of failure, anxiety or extreme frustration. This picture emerges from a survey instigated by Resource and conducted by ten Dutch higher education magazines. We sent questionnaires to 5,200 university students on both theoretical and applied courses, 500 of them at Wageningen UR institutions. The number of stressed-out students in Wage­ningen appears to hover around the national average. The undisputed stress capital of the Netherlands is Delft, where more than half the students suffer.  
No one seems too surprised to hear that students are under a lot of pressure. 'Stress no longer affects just a few isolated cases; it is almost the norm', responds Pascal ten Have, chair of student union LSVb. He sees a direct connection with cabinet policy. 'Because of all the government's measures, students have to achieve more.' State secretary Zijlstra, the architect of this policy, responds almost laconically. 'A little bit of stress is not bad; you have to deal with it in your work later as well.' He points out that surveys among workers show that they too suffer from stress. 
Study load
Objectively seen, students don't seem to be all that busy studying. Nationwide, for example, about 70 percent of applied sciences students spend less than 30 hours a week studying. At universities, this goes for about 55 percent. Broadly speaking, these figures match earlier national studies, confirms Martin Mulder, professor of Education and Competency Studies. 'It seems that many programmes are too light and too easy.'

Wageningen students do better than the national average on this point. About 40 percent of all VHL students spend at least 30 hours a week studying and at the university, at least 60 percent do so.
Ten Have emphasizes the value of contact hours. He believes there is a limit to what you can expect from independent study: 'Very many students want to work harder and be challenged, but at many universities you don't get more than seven or eight contact hours.' But Anne-Wil Lucas, conservative VVD party MP, points out that students are free to choose for themselves whether to take a degree course with many contact hours or with few: 'Students at Wageningen have opted expressly for a small-scale university with intensive degree programmes.'
Study load is not the only factor in study stress, it seems. Mulder believes that another major factor is the combination of a student's personality, intellectual capacity and ambitions. The survey certainly shows that at Wageningen there is no clear correlation between hours spent studying and stress levels. The only exception to this is the group of students who study for more than 40 hours, 60 percent of whom feel under pressure. The survey does reveal striking differences in stress levels between different groups of students. International students such as Riany (see box) often suffer from stress (52 percent). The most common form of stress in this group is fear of failure, as is confirmed by André Godkewitsch, for many years Wageningen UR's student doctor. 'It is difficult for them, in a strange country with a different climate and an incomprehensible language.'  Cultural differences play a big role too. 'For non-western students another factor is often that they are afraid of failing. If they don't go home with a degree, they feel that as loss of face. That puts a lot of pressure on them.'
Active students such as Sacha (see box) form a group that suffers relatively little study stress. It is not a strong correlation, but people who spend more time at clubs, or engaged in sports or even part-time jobs, consistently suffer less from stress. People without extra activities more often feel overloaded. Seeking an explanation for this brings you up against a chicken-and-egg question: are relaxed students more active? Or do extracurricular activities make for more relaxed students? 'I think both are true', says Ten Have. 'It helps you to let off steam if you do something apart from studying, and meet new people. That is important.'
Another noticeably relaxed category of students is ­those living at home. Only 20 percent of the Wageningen students who live at home experience stress. What is more, they less often seek the help of a psychologist or study advisor. This is logical, says Mulder. 'At home they are in the safe environment of Hotel Mama. For students who live out, there is less social control.' But he does not conclude from this that everyone should stay at home for their student years. 'By getting experience of living independently early on in life, you have fewer problems later on.'
The 'Halbe levy'
The big question this academic year is how much the new Dutch cabinet's policies will affect study stress levels. 'The fine on slow students is hanging like a big black cloud over students' heads', says Socialist Party MP Jasper van Dijk. 'It's OK for students to get stressed because of an intensive degree programme, but stress shouldn't come from financial pressure.' Some of the survey respondents were worried about this too. 'Terrible', scribbled one of them in large letters next to the questions about the fine.  
At present it is hard to say how bad the financial pressure will get. The survey does show, however, that the policy is causing students to have second thoughts about going on to postgraduate study. Nationally, 20 percent of students are changing their minds about doing a Master's because of the slow student fine. Of these, one fifth are not going to pursue further study, one third are going to do another (easier) course, and half do not know yet. 'The new rule is casting a long shadow in front of it', says Mulder, who was shocked by these figures. 'Perhaps we are going to follow the US, where many Bachelor's graduates first go out to work and come back later to do a part-time Master's.'
Eight percent of Bachelor's students have decided not to go on to a Master's because of the new fine. 'Out of a total of 670,000 students, this means that a large number will not gain the qualification they really want', responds Ten Have. What is more, this is just one of the measures. The government is also going to restrict the free public transport hitherto offered to students and scrap the basic grant for Master's students.
In fact, the idea of scrapping the basic grant for all students is almost palpably in the air in The Hague. Take all these cuts together and even a short extension on your studies starts to have serious knock-on effects. VHL student Ronald (see box): 'It's a case of: choose the right degree programme from the start, or tough luck.'
No pity
How politicians interpret the survey results depends a lot on their own political leanings. State Secretary Zijlstra thinks it will be a good thing if students make their choice of degree more carefully. Jasper van Dijk is afraid young people from lower income brackets will now be less likely to embark on degree courses. Anne-Wil Lucas refuses to feel pity for the students. 'They have their own responsibilities. I am worried about the competitiveness of Dutch students. They are not going to be up to the competition with their Chinese counterparts, for example. They work much harder and set much higher standards for themselves.'
Active student: Sacha van Dalen, fifth-year student of Animal Sciences
'I spent a year on the Aiesec board and in my first year I fell two months behind with my studies. Now I am doing loads besides my degree course. In the KSV I am active in a sorority board and I am organizing a week of activities for the society's jubilee. And I play rugby, which involves two training sessions a week as well as competitions. And I am the team manager.
It is quite a load to do all this besides my studies, but, well, everyone says they are busy. The more you do, the more you can keep things in perspective, I reckon. I do notice that in the current four-week period the pressure is higher. If I just miss a bit of a course, there is far less time in which to catch up, certainly with a resit as well. Luckily, I am old enough to avoid the fine on slow students. Not that I would do less, though. I pass my courses on time and my extracurricular activities give me energy to keep on enjoying my studies. I am not very ambitious when it comes to grades. I couldn't do all this and get eights as well.'

Foreign  student: Riany Ananti Musfira, second-year Master's student of Food and Technology from Indonesia
'In my first year I was under a lot of pressure. This is the first time for me to study abroad, and I am not used to studying in English. You find yourself in a whole new world. What is more, my background is not in food technology, but in agriculture. So the courses were incredibly difficult. I failed one course in the first period and another one later in the year.
I got a grant to come here and so there was an evaluation after one year. I was very agitated about that. I couldn't sleep and I often cried at night. I had a lot of contact with my family and with my boyfriend in Indonesia. Sadly, the relationship ended, partly due to the stress and partly due to the distance and the time difference.
What has helped the most has been working together with a classmate, who taught me a lot. We studied for exams together. We covered a lot of ground and that made studying a lot easier. Fortunately, my grant was extended and I have developed a good study routine. I have extended my thesis somewhat and that means I can compensate for the courses I failed. I have nearly finished it and now I just have to do an internship.'
The wrong choice: Ronald Slofstra, fourth-year student of Forensic Sciences at VHL Leeuwarden
'In my second year of Forensic Sciences I realized that I didn't want to work in a lab. I would rather go into journalism. This year a rule is being introduced that you have to pay the full tuition fees for a second Bachelor's degree, which is much more. The decision was soon made and I went to Groningen University to do a Bachelor's. Then they came up with the fine for slow students, which I could only avoid by finishing my VHL degree after all. Now I am trying to do as many modules as I can and to do preparatory courses for the Master's I want to do in Journalism. But all the difficulties have made me have second thoughts. All the uncertainty around continuously changing rules is quite a headache. I made choices without knowing what new rules were going to be introduced. If they now take away our free public transport, it will be the last straw.'
To see the agenda of the student Daan van Vliet, click here.