Over a thousand VU students who want to go on exchange have joined forces to make exchanges to so-called orange countries possible. Lina Nasser, second-year bachelor student in Communication & Information Studies, has started a petition.
Why did you start a protest?
“Since the application in December everything is very unclear about whether VU Amsterdam will allow exchanges in the first semester of next year. In April the message came that the VU would wait for the government’s update of travel advisories on the 15th of May. The update has been published now and only a few, mainly European countries have changed from code orange to yellow. Since the VU follows the travel advisories, this would mean that a lot of students will not be able to go on exchange.”
At the moment, most countries receive an orange color code from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The advice is to travel to these countries only when strictly necessary. Countries with color code green or yellow are safe for traveling.
How bad is that?
“The exchange is really important! We worked really hard to be able to go. Some students were set to go last year, but then their exchange was cancelled, and now they’re already delayed by a year. Sometimes an exchange is required for a Master’s or traineeship. It’s a really important decision!”
So you took action.
“We started off as a small group of students going to South Korea. That grew into a bigger group for the whole of Asia, and now all exchange students are involved. That’s about a thousand people. They all signed our petition.”
You argue that the travel advice is not a good measurement for student exchanges. Why not?
“For South Korea we did some specific research. The country is one of the safest in the world, when it comes to Covid-19. We contacted the Embassy, and they also don’t know why the country gets an orange code. They want to restrict tourism, but they do allow people that want to stay in the country for more than 90 days, like exchange students. Other students collected similar statements from their host universities and Embassies.”
‘There is a need to differentiate between tourism and student exchanges’
So the orange code is not correct?
“The reason, I think, is because the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs gives an orange code if countries declare they don’t want visitors from the Netherlands. But these rules apply to tourists. It doesn’t always mean that the country is unsafe, as the VU concludes. There is a need to differentiate between tourism and student exchanges!”
The color codes may still change before the first semester.
“It might be the case that the codes will change, but that may be too late for many students. On the 1st of June the Executive Board will decide about exchanges to countries outside Europe, and on the 1st of July about exchanges to European countries. We don’t have a lot of time.”
Have you tried contacting the Executive Board directly?
“We sent them a message with all arguments and concerns beginning of March, and told them why we think the VU policy is not correct. We received no reply. They did send a Q&A fact sheet to all of us, but this only made the situation worse. The question: ‘If my country does receive exchange students but remains orange, can we go?’ had the answer: ‘No, VU Amsterdam is guiding the decision, not the host university.’ Why? The general answer we got is because they are concerned about our safety. But if it’s about our safety then why are vaccinations ignored? Considering the substantial progress both within the Netherlands and other regions, like the US, it should definitely not be disregarded.”
You got angry.
“We never received a detailed response to our arguments. We felt we were ignored and our arguments didn’t matter. If they had made it more understandable we would have reacted differently.”
‘Tilburg University lets students go on exchange at their own risk’
What are you trying to achieve with your protest?
“We’re hoping that the VU changes its policy completely. Traveling to countries with an orange travel advice is possible. We argue that as an individual you have the power to make your own decision. We’re denied to make a decision for our own future. And there are differences between institutions, so there are alternatives. For example, Tilburg University lets students go on exchange at their own risk.”
Could you go by yourself, even if VU Amsterdam cancels the exchange?
“If they really decide to cancel they will withdraw our nominations from the host universities. So we cannot go. In that case we are forced to do a minor or internship, but it’s really hard to find an internship on such short notice.”
Why have you chosen South Korea for your exchange?
“The university I’m going to is really prestigious. I worked really hard to get accepted. It has certain courses, about Korea and Asia, that I’m not able to take anywhere in Europe. I want to go to East Asia for my Master’s degree, so it’s good to have the experience of living and studying in an Asian country. I’ve studied Japanese and Korean for a long time. I put in a lot of effort into really getting to know Asia. So this exchange is really important to me.”
VU Amsterdam will continue to follow the guidelines and regulations of the government. The Board announced this in an email on Friday morning to all students who want to go on an exchange. However, they will extend the decision dates by 2 to 6 weeks, depending on the minimum preparation time needed for the exchange procedures. Moreover, for orange countries that are on the safe countries list the International Office will examine if an exemption is possible.