29 April 2020

‘Online working visit’ Prime Minister Rutte at Maastricht University

“What a charming man...” It’s clear that the ‘online working visit’ that was just made by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to one of the tutorial groups of Maastricht University professor and sociologist Mark Levels has impressed the students.

To-the-point in terms of content

Immediately, there is interaction. Rutte fires off one question after another at professor Levels and his UCM students. Effortlessly, he switches from the content of the course to the personal ups and downs of living and studying in lockdown. Calm, with humour and with a real interest in the answers of those with whom he is speaking. Before the Prime Minister ‘dialled in’, there was a slight look of suspense on the faces of the students; after a few minutes everyone is relaxed and joining in—and also getting very much to the point in terms of content.
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With a jovial Ruttian, “Good morning everyone!”, the Prime Minister joined the Zoom-meeting.

Couldn’t be more timely

Because the content of the course couldn’t be more timely; it is about theoretical explanations of mechanisms that lead to social order. Dr Mark Levels (1977), Professor of Health, Education and Work: “Every year, we read and discuss what the great philosophers have to say about the role of markets, states, groups, institutions and networks in the creation of social order. When COVID-19 turned into a pandemic and we could simply observe the mechanisms we had been talking about for years on the streets and in the news, my tutor Per Bles and I quickly converted the course into a course on the social mechanisms surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, last week we read Schelling and Adam Smith and Hayek’s ideas about market mechanisms and talked for a long time about the assumptions regarding individual actors in the ‘agent-based models’ that underlie many government policies aimed at flattening the curve. Earlier, we discussed at length the cultural significance of face masks and distances between people.” 

Rutte also applies this to the current situation: “Yesterday, there was a demonstration here in The Hague against the coronavirus measures. What was nice to see was that the demonstrators kept a distance of at least 1.5 metres between themselves”. Meaning, it was a demonstration that was in keeping with Dutch culture.

‘Online education gives room for creativity’

From Amanda, a third-year UCM student from Sweden, he wants to know what type of further education she will follow. Paulina, who is from Mexico, talks about what it’s like to follow an education programme from a distance: “I notice that I now have more room for my creativity; I would like to maintain the balance between that creativity and my studies.” From Elisa, who now lives with her parents just outside Maastricht in the Netherlands, the Prime Minister wants to know how she is managing to maintain her social contacts. “That takes a lot more effort now. I Skype a lot with friends.”

Debate over the position of students

After 15 minutes, Rutte waves into the camera. He ‘leaves’ Maastricht (“Still the most beautiful European city, except for Rome perhaps!”) to call in on another tutorial group at the University of Groningen (RUG). With this ‘online working visit’, the Prime Minister wants to hear from teachers and students about how they are doing, personally and with online education. In a separate conversation, he will also be briefed by UM Rector Magnificus Prof. Rianne Letschert, her colleague Prof. Cisca Wijmenga of the RUG, and VSNU President Pieter Duisenberg. The day seems well chosen; on this very day the Lower House of Parliament is debating on the position of students in the coronavirus crisis.

After it’s over, the UM students and Mark Levels resonate with the quote that Mark Rutte borrowed from his Italian colleague Giuseppe Conte: “Let’s keep our distance today, in order to embrace each other again tomorrow...”.

Minister President Mark Rutte bezoekt universiteiten

text: Fons Elbersen
photos: Harry Heuts