Attendance Policies at Dutch Universities: Requirement or Relic?

By Siddharth Nair

Collage by Sabine Besson

AUC’s attendance policy has come under scrutiny since its re-enforcement in June 2022. While the policy is meant to keep students engaged, grades up and class participation consistent, anti-attendance proponents at AUC argue that it undercuts the free will of adult students. They even posit that “the management hasn’t shown that they’re willing to address student concerns directly.”

But is AUC’s controversy an isolated case? Or does it represent the sentiment of students from all around the Netherlands? Four students from four different Dutch universities and university colleges present their thoughts on the attendance policy in their respective institution.

Rachel O’Sullivan, Universiteit van Amsterdam: “The fact that I am not rich is a death sentence”

“Attendance is a module-by-module thing. It’s part of our grade – either it’s pass/fail or it’s weighted,” says Rachel O’Sullivan, an Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) student currently on exchange from University College Dublin, Ireland. In the UvA, the policy leads to “attendance anticipation”. According to O’Sullivan “Sometimes you need to have very specific knowledge and they expect every bit of reading to be done to the fullest extent every week. Sometimes these requirements are clear and sometimes they are not.”

Unclear attendance requirements are rife at UvA, where attendance requirements often state that lectures can be missed whereas tutorials require mandatory attendance. But even this is structured on a course-by-course basis, with lecturers enforcing differing requirements across modules. There seems to be a lack of a uniform attendance requirement, but the policies used on each individual course seem to be reflective of a greater system of learning which prioritises student involvement in terms of time and energy. However, this often has consequences which affect some students more than others.

“I can understand in some ways where the attendance requirement came from but I think it is rooted in so many complex problems,” O’Sullivan says. Attendance requirements tend to be unfair towards those who need to work to support their studies (often a large population of students), and unrealistic work expectations play towards privilege, ignorance and elitism on an institutional level. “It’s just undoable, especially if you’re an average middle-class student. I have to work, because my parents don’t support me because I’m not rich. The course is built around the assumption that you are rich or you can benefit from what the Dutch government can give to you,” O’Sullivan says.

Addressing the issues that arise for international students and students with disabilities, they say, “A lot of the students here are immigrants, so you can’t benefit the way other students do. We talk about that especially among international students and get scammed or are homeless and have none of the benefits.I also have chronic illness, and I am physically disabled. It’s not fair to hold me to the same standard as someone else.”

They also expressed a sense of disillusionment regarding their expectations of the university and how it fell short in terms of lived experience at the UvA. “I expected a high standard of education would come with a high standard of understanding how people work and high levels of leniency and accommodation. But instead it came with the high expectations that you have unlimited time on your hands and a stable place to live and it feels like it comes with the expectation that you’re part of the one percent  rather than being a willing and interested student.”

Regarding opening a conversation with management about this among the general student community, they say, “I feel like people are scared, there is a bit of fear. You’re going to be shunned by the system you’re already breaking your back to fit into.”

Milan Matthes Kale, Amsterdam University College: “People are like, ‘Whatever, I’ll deal with it”

The attendance policy at Amsterdam University College (AUC) stipulates that “six absences in one course during the 16-week period will result in an automatic failure of the course” and that “three absences in one course during the 4-week period will result in automatic failure of the course.” The attendance policy was re-enforced in June 2022 after the COVID-19 pandemic had calmed down.

“I’ve always had a good attendance in general”, third-year Social Science major Milan Matthes Kale says. “The attendance policy has not helped me study better because I went to class either way and in fact, it has impacted me negatively because I am more stressed out about when I can use an absence even if I feel like I need to not go today,” they say. Since the start of the current 16-week period AUC does not allow for online classes anymore – even in cases of COVID-19.

When asked about whether the student community tried to take initiative in changing things, they say, “There was a moment last year when a lot of students got together and really didn’t like it. There were discussions of striking, but nothing really came out of that yet.” With reference to an alleged lack of response from management or associated student bodies like the Student Council, they say, “At AUC, at this point, we’ve realised that everything we have requested for change, so little of it actually happens and people are like, ‘whatever, I’ll deal with it’.”

An interesting observation can be found in the way the attendance policy interacts with students who work part-time in a curriculum that is designed to be full-time. “There were cases of students who got their schedules at the beginning of the year and so set up their work according to that and then were suddenly told after a week of class that they were being switched to a different class at a different time”, Matthes Kale says, “The school stated that they expected students to be available from 8.30 AM to 6 PM, even if they’re not technically in class, they’re supposed to be doing homework so in that sense you’re not supposed to be working in that time or at least you should be available for class things. This alienates all students who have to work, which is a large sum of AUC students.”

Third-year Social Science major Milan Matthes Kale.

Dylan Gutierrez, Leiden University College: “They tried in the past with no attendance policy and no one showed up”

At Leiden University College (LUC) in The Hague, the attendance policy allows for students to miss up to 15 percent of classes per course. In case of absences arising out of situations beyond the students’ control, the student handbook reads that “Extenuating circumstances are recognised and properly documented unforeseen circumstances that are serious and beyond the control of students, and which demonstrably impact on their academic performance.”

“If you have more than two unexcused absences, and including latenesses to an extent, you fail a course”, says Dylan Gutierrez, a second-year Governance, Economics and Development student at LUC. “Honestly, it’s kind of normal. I haven’t felt it that much. I generally don’t skip. In my perception, it’s not that big of a thing.”

When asked about the overall student perception of the policy, he says, “You get the offhand comment in a group chat, like ‘You gotta love the attendance policy’ and people say, ‘Oh my God, the attendance policy sucks’ but even comments like that are rare.” 

A way to rationalise and deepen understanding on the attendance policy is to observe the way it interacts with students and teachers in a learning environment. “For most students, myself included, it’s an annoyance,” Gutierrez says. “We have external professors from the UvA. Those professors tend to be more strict with it whereas LUC professors are more chill. It’s neutral to negative on the student’s side. It’s also an annoyance for teachers.”

Many teachers at LUC also interact with the attendance policy in a more “understanding” way, or as Gutierrez puts it, “If I could fix the attendance policy, it would be to make it more lenient with how rigorous your excuse needs to be, because they allow for excused absences. A lot of teachers already do that so it’s a difficult balance.”

In general, the attendance policy at LUC is very closely tied to the structure and format of classes across modules. “The way teachers rationalise it is: they tried in the past with no attendance policy and no one showed up. Because of the specific teaching style of LUC, when people don’t show up they do really poorly in class and they seem to fail a lot and that sort of model was untenable to administration. I can see the rationale there, it makes sense to me,” says Gutierrez. “There are certain facets of the teaching style at LUC that require student attendance to be valuable because a lot of it is discussion based. Seminars benefit with more perspectives.”

So the attendance policy actually fits in with the overall teaching style at LUC, but what about marginalised groups like disabled students? Is the learning experience coupled with an attendance policy fruitful for them? “The attendance policy at LUC interacts with other systems. At LUC, accommodations and facilities for disabled people are hard to get. The process by which you get them is subjective, slow and subject to teacher discretion which is always problematic. I think if accommodations were more robust, the attendance policy would be okay,” says Gutierrez.

“I would say it’s more difficult for people with disabilities than it should be,” he says. “If you ask about the programme structure being ableist, I would say ‘yes’. And at LUC, you don’t have many students talking about issues. There isn’t much criticism of structures.”

LUC student Dylan Gutierrez.

Julia Nowakowska, University College Maastricht: “I would be more lenient with the attendance around the flu season”

At University College Maastricht (UCM), the student handbook stipulates that courses usually have an attendance requirement between 85 percent to 100 percent. Attendance is recorded by the tutor or course coordinator for each tutorial group, and students who have not met the requirement and whose absence has been marked as “inexcusable” will not receive a pass for the module concerned.

“Normally you are allowed to miss two tutorials. However, for some skills courses you can only miss one or even none of the tutorials,” says Julia Nowakowska, a third-year student at UCM majoring in Psychology. “Lectures are not mandatory unless stated otherwise, and I think having attendance requirements pushes people to show up to class, myself included.”  

Commenting on the synthesis between the attendance policy and the institution’s teaching method, she says, “The attendance policy is necessary especially considering that at UCM we have problem-based learning where you need people to carry an interesting discussion. If people don’t show up there’s less knowledge being spread, therefore you get less insights.”

Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centred pedagogical method where students interact with material to form open-ended solutions to given problems. It is defined as a non-linear methodology which is centred on the idea that knowledge is most effectively remembered in the context in which it is learned. “This gives you insight into why attendance is so important at UCM in general,”  Nowakowska says. 

Regarding student perceptions of the attendance requirements, Nowakowska described a general air of understanding, however, this does not go to say there are not some contentions with the application of the policy. “The only thing we dislike is that the attendance requirements are different for each faculty and UCM’s attendance is the strictest so we often feel like it’s unfair that others don’t have attendance requirements at all or they are allowed to miss more,” says Nowakowska. 

Would UCM student Nowakowska like to have the current attendance requirements amended in any way? She says, “Yes, I wouldn’t abolish them completely. I would be more lenient with the attendance around flu season when everyone gets sick and should stay at home. Instead we are often forced to show up, spreading the germs around just to be able to pass the course or not have to do an additional assignment.”

Common threads linking these responses include a desire to amend attendance requirements in some way. The types of amendments vary, but mostly, students have expressed a desire to make the existing legislature more lenient. In addition to this, the significance of the working student, the disabled student and other disadvantaged classes of students (which constitute a large proportion of students who often don’t have their needs met by institutions that claim to meet them) have been raised: how do they fit into a system with attendance requirements?

Some of the students interviewed have mentioned that while legislature props up “harsh” attendance standards, teachers tend to be more understanding in granting excusable absences (particularly in the case of LUC). But this is not always the case. In nearly every response, the student interviewed made connections between the attendance policy and larger institutional systems, and this points to the fact that the conversation about the attendance policy need not necessarily be isolated to the policy or the requirement in itself: it often overlaps with greater critiques of teaching and learning (and how these processes are carried out) across the university level. In simplified terms: who is the attendance policy for, what kind of a system does it support? And how does it make things easier for the institution?

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