Sacha Kroonenberg: ‘Several good initiatives have emerged from the pandemic.’ (Photo: TU Delft)
Sacha Kroonenberg: ‘Several good initiatives have emerged from the pandemic.’ (Photo: TU Delft)

Sacha Kroonenberg had just been appointed Director of Education and Student Affairs when the country locked down. What’s it like to deal with a crisis when you’re brand new?

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Everything seemed perfectly fine when you were appointed Director of Education and Student Affairs in October 2019. Just a few months later the corona crisis had broken out. What was it like to do your induction in such a turbulent time?
“I didn’t get round to meeting everyone. I had just come on board when all sorts of fires needed to be put out. For us, the crisis actually started in January. When the number of infections was rising in China, we had to come up with protective measures for TU Delft. A lot of staff and students had been in China around the Christmas period on holiday or for study trips. I don’t need to say that corona is awful. Just in terms of onboarding, it wasn’t actually that bad. A lot happened in a short space of time. Everything was compressed. It meant that you saw really quickly if consultative bodies were not working well or if information flows should be changed. Pressure makes everything clear. You can compare it to a leaking heating system. If the pressure in the boiler drops, you do not know where the problem lies. But if you pump up the pressure, you see exactly where the water spurts out of the pipes.”

That sounds good, but that the education had to be changed so dramatically from one day to the next when the lockdown came must have been exhausting for everyone concerned.
“The pressure in the faculties and on the Education & Student Affairs (ESA) staff was tremendous. I checked in with some people every week. I checked to see if they were all right and if everything was going well. This is hard to do on the computer. On campus, you drop by and meet someone face-to-face. But we couldn’t do that anymore. We had to put out fires, jumping from one to the other. Luckily we have all come through relatively unscathed, even if we are not as fresh as we were at the beginning of the crisis. The situation is becoming more normal now. The entire crisis organisation has now been set up. The various bodies are now in place and can be called upon to start running as soon as they are needed. This is very helpful.”

So you have no regrets that you took the job last year?
“Ha ha! You surely don’t think that I’m going to say that I’m not happy with this work? TU Delft is a fantastic university that has many inspirational and passionate people.”

The fact that all the lectures suddenly had to go online may negatively affect the quality of the education. Is this getting better?
“Going online worked better for some lessons than for others. Online teaching is of course more than just filming a lecture that you used to give in the classroom. It involves didactic principles. ESA has educational experts who can help. They have made tips and materials available on various websites and give webinars every week. The education is getting better all the time.”

Education was being digitalised anyway with MOOCS, blended learning and hybrid classes, methods which use both physical and virtual means for students. But the corona crisis pushed this into the fast lane. What will education be like when the corona crisis has passed?
“Much of it will be done on campus again. We all have the need to come together. But what I don’t believe – or what I don’t want to believe – is that we completely go back to the situation before the corona crisis. So many great initiatives have come out of the pandemic. Let’s keep the good things. The teachers who were a step ahead with blended learning will have had an easier time over the last months. But the ones who resisted it, have now been forced to use it. I suspect that many of them now see its advantages.”

What are the biggest challenges for education at TU Delft at the moment?
“Teachers, staff and students want some perspective on what will happen. For months now our forecast has only been a couple of weeks. It would be good if we had a bit of certainty for a longer period. But if the regulations become stricter, we of course have to carry them out. And the question is whether we should immediately use every little bit of easing up to the full. In education, even small easing up of the regulations can be major game changers. Should we chase after them greedily? Some teachers can’t wait to give lessons on campus again. But some don’t want to at all for health reasons. A bit of peace and certainty would be a good thing. I would really like to see a guiding light for the longer term. All of us at TU Delft will have to talk about this at some point.”

Has the corona crisis affected student numbers and the composition of the student population? Are fewer international students coming to TU Delft?
“I had expected to see a huge impact on student numbers at the end of summer, but it’s not really happened. The in flow numbers have hardly been affected. There are fewer master students from India and China, that’s true. And some international students may decide to return home. Things are strange for them. I know that some international students are wondering what they’re doing here, attending a university that is giving online courses and being unable to see their fellow students. Loneliness is an issue. For all students, of course. We are devoting a lot of effort to this. We are trying to bring students together online. Some students are still going to parties or meeting up in parks. It is very unwise, but I understand the need for connection.”