It is mid-May 2021 and after a fun evening out I cycle home. I laughed and danced with study friends at a – corona proof – house party. After three months of curfew it is wonderful to be able to go home at about three in the morning. While I lock up my bike, I see that the lights at home are still on. A housemate is still awake and has had a less pleasant evening.
Armed with a toasted sandwich, I watch as he adds a fence to a model. My housemate is stuck with a crazy deadline – eight in the morning. And this is not the first time. The last time he had not slept all night when he showed his poster to me at breakfast. But this time he thinks that he will be able to sleep for a couple of hours. After finishing my toasted sandwich, I wish him good luck and went to bed. Better late than not at all.
These kind of deadlines are normal for students at the Faculties of Architecture and the Built Environment and Industrial Design Engineering. Many deadlines are open until just before the start of the morning presentations. As many students will confirm, you never finish well before a deadline. Or, as The Economist wrote in 1955, ‘work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’. Since then, this phenomenon has been called Parkinson’s Law, after the essayist, and explains why students work until early in the morning.
Everyone has experienced it – you started too late and are stressed. You then experience the effects of an overdose of cortisol, or the stress hormone. A lack of cortisol leads to a loss of focus (in Dutch). This means that easy jobs lead to low productivity and putting things off. This makes beginning early difficult. This explains why students work inefficiently – or not at all – until the time that the deadline is just doable. This exemplifies Parkinson’s Law and why students work at the very last minute.
Every teacher that sets crazy deadlines is responsible for sleep-deprived students and every degree programme that allows this is an accomplice. In an era in which student welfare is high on the agenda, the policymakers of the degree programmes and at TU Delft must do something about this. I thus propose banning deadlines between 23:00 and 11:00.
‘Every degree programme that allows this is an accomplice’
In France, for example, employers have been fined for requiring employees to be available outside office hours. The underlying French law, which was passed in 2017, calls this the ‘right to disconnect’. Give students the same right and ban these crazy deadlines in education and exam regulations.
You never really finish creative projects. So students working on these types of projects especially need to be protected. You could say that teachers begrudge the students time. But students will spend just as many productive hours on the project, only earlier in the day. And the exhausting working time will be replaced by wakeful working time. So without crazy deadlines, you give students both better sleep and better results.
Some students won’t think it’s better. Working through the night is already in their system. It’s part of being a student. Or perhaps some are night owls and work better at night. Indeed, not everyone is a morning lark. But these students will just have to get used to starting a night earlier. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but there is an all-fit solution.
I also understand that it is not always practical to set deadlines before 23:00. After all, you can’t submit your model on Brightspace. And it is not easily avoided that students work through the night on drawings or posters. It will be easy to implement for degree programmes that do not work with models and drawings. But I am certain that crazy deadlines can be avoided in degree programmes such as Architecture and the Built Environment and Industrial Design Engineering. They are creative enough to find alternatives.
I am calling on the policymakers at TU Delft. Protect your students from crazy deadlines and sleepless nights. Give us the right to a good sleep at night. For many students it is physiologically impossible to be finished well ahead of time. So forbid the submission of work between 23:00 and 11:00. Without imposing your crazy deadlines, when do you think you will introduce the ‘right to disconnect’? Sleep on it.
Mathijs van Kouwen is a Sustainable Energy Technology master’s student. He has coached students on improving their focus and reducing stress since 2020. He gives courses on workflow to student board members across the country.