Portrait of Monique van der Veen
Monique van der Veen: “You cannot cover all the different circumstances in a rule.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

Equal treatment is not an absolute ethical principle, asserts Monique van der Veen. If you stiff-neckedly would stick to it, you would actually not be able to help anyone.

Lees in het Nederlands

I was heavily pregnant during the Covid-19 wave when the Delta variant was dominant (end of spring 2021). At the time, it was clear that that variant could cause the disease to take a more serious course among pregnant women, which would not be good for the unborn child. Later, Erasmus MC discovered that the Delta variant could cause a ‘broken placenta’ (in Dutch). The advice of the “Covid-19 and Pregnancy working group” (the Dutch official body for policy advice regarding pregnancy and vaccinations) in the spring of 2021 was for all pregnant women of my age group or older to be considered part of the high risk group and be given priority for vaccinations. My general practitioner had a different opinion as I was not on the flu jab list. According to the general guidelines, these were the people who would be vaccinated with priority. It was a decision tree argument. I did not grow up in the Netherlands and see this argument as a typically Dutch phenomenon. This type of argument is often motivated with the idea that equal treatment is important.

Continuing this thought process, it means that you cannot really help anyone anymore. There will always be someone in the Netherlands who does not receive the care that you want to give. We are not even talking about all the other people in the world who barely even get any healthcare at all. And can you still even give anything to a good cause? If you do, you will not be giving to all other good causes. The Daughters of Destiny Netflix series is about a charitable institution in India that gives children who live on less than USD 2 a day quality education from the age of four up to and including university. They take just one child in every family. Is that actually fair on their siblings? Their objective is that the child can later give their family and the local community a better life. One child per family thus means having the maximum impact.

As a teacher, I mostly help the students who ask for it

How relevant is this to a university? Shouldn’t we treat all students equally? Exams should be marked in the same way, and extra resits assigned equally to the same situations. All this goes without saying. Yet, the exam regulations give the leeway to assess individual cases. You cannot cover all the different circumstances in a rule.

As a teacher, I mostly help the students who ask for it such as by asking questions during lectures or on an online platform, making an appointment, or talking to me in the corridor. This is usually about help with the subject, but sometimes it is more of a mentor discussion. The consequence is that not all students get the same amount of help from me. It might even be the students who most need my help who are least able to approach me. Such as someone who is on the point of dropping out and is staying at home. Or a first generation student who is unable to find advice in his/her network and experiences the bar to talk to a teacher as too high. That said, I feel that it is my duty to help the people who approach me. For the rest, all I can do is  try to be as approachable as possible. Decision tree arguments do not appear here.

Decision tree arguments work really well to reduce the workload. For the person working out the arguments, that is. If the recipient gets a ‘you need to go to Y’ at X, and a ‘you need to go to X’ at Y, desperation is around the corner. An analogy of the feedback loop of the decision tree comes to mind, and that is of a hamster wheel.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen