Stressing out at TU Delft

A major survey about student stress levels at 15 Dutch universities and polytechnics found that TU Delft students are the most stressed out of all.


It’s long been known that students have faced tremendous stress during their studies, but TU Delft hasn’t really taken this fact seriously, largely regarding stress as a routine part of student life. While healthy stress can motivate students to perform better, stress shouldn’t push students into realms of anxiety and frustration.

From a survey sample size of 475 TU Delft students, including 59 internationals, the student stress survey’s results were conclusive: TU Delft students experience higher levels of extreme stress during their studies than students at other Dutch universities. 52.9 percent of TU Delft students said they felt such great stress during their studies, compared to 37.6 percent at TU Eindhoven, 36.7 at Twente University, and a national average of 40 percent.

Meanwhile, 71 percent of TU Delft’s international students reported facing stress from everyday life, which severely limited their daily activities. The survey’s results are indeed staggering. Of the student group who said they experienced stress, 73 percent said that high levels of anxiety and extreme frustration were direct consequences.

“I still remember the first semester here,” says Qian Li, an MSc student from China. “I failed lots of exams, and during the time I prepared my project’s final presentation, I slept two hours a day for an entire week. There was one morning when I totally broke down, waking up at 5 a.m. and sitting in front of my laptop, working and crying at the same time. It was a hard time, and I think I would attribute it to my slow acclimatization to the new system here. The communication was hard, expectations from professors were different.“

Although work while you work and play while you play is a popular adage, it hasn’t been quite relevant in the university setting, especially in the case of TU Delft. The survey revealed that in one week, 73 percent of students spend less than one hour on sports, which suggest that it’s perhaps more than a coincidence that the number of students suffering from stress-related anxiety and frustration is exactly the same as the number of students who don’t spend enough time on sports and recreation.

The survey also revealed that the number of students putting in more than 15 hours of study time a week is quite high: 56 percent. These 15 hours of study is the amount of time that students need to put in apart from the time they spend attending lectures, assignments, group meetings and labs. Given these numbers, it’s evident that not many students have the going easy during their studies, and the numbers corroborate that fact: 41 percent of international students said they have very little or no fun at all during their study period.


Itai Cohen, from Israel, a second-year MSc student of building technology, says: “In my line of work – architectural design – creativity cannot be simply achieved by effective working time. Lots of time is spent waiting for ideas to kick in, and this time is usually spent on Facebook or doing other meaningless things, while parallelly thinking about work. While I haven’t figured any other way to spend this time, it also creates enormous amounts of guilt – if you’re having fun and not working.”

Cohen says that this in turn creates lots of stress in the mind, and “the same goes for activities like hanging out with friends or going to a movie while waiting for that flash of genius. I just have to live with the stress until the efficiency kicks in, enabling the working sprees to start.”

The number of students who find their studies extremely difficult stands at a statistically significant 47%. That nearly half of all students find their studies extremely difficult is a signal that the university must start looking into this matter. Is it for example a case of study overload, or a study program being too cluttered, making it difficult for students to cope? This difficulty in studying directly converts into a delay in study periods, with 46% of international students having delays of one year or more. More time is more money, and thus the delay in study periods for international students means they must shell out extra international tuition fees to the university.

With a glum, recession-hit work environment to look forward to, and tuition fees a staggering six times higher than those for EU students, it’s only natural for the international students to be even more stressed out. The possibility to work part-time and earn extra cash is also bleak for internationals, with only 2 of the 59 international students surveyed holding part-time jobs of some sort.

Malli Sarvanan Balraj, an MSc architecture student from India, agrees: “I don’t find my study difficult in the conventional sense, but the fact that I have a huge bank loan to repay makes life a little difficult. Studying at TU Delft is a very expensive affair that’s set me back several thousand euros, which even many European students would find a staggering amount. So, this huge sum of money, combined with extremely demanding course work, an uncertain future in a poor job market, and the necessity to finish on time, makes it tough indeed. ”

The fact that international students stay away from their homes for prolonged periods of time, in some cases for more than two years, adds to their misery. And given the housing situation in Delft, where 100% of the surveyed international students live in student houses with little or no interaction with neighbors, the situation is quite grim. Cases of depression and anxiety seldom get reported, as students often don’t realize they suffer from this until friends or professors point it out. The survey’s numbers clearly reveal that students indeed suffer from great stress. While the university stated that, at present, it is not overly concerned by the findings, at some point TU Delft must assess the functioning of its study programs and structures, in order to make life easier for students. Professors and supervisors must also be sensitized to this issue, provided with continuous information about problems and situations unique to international students.

Student housing
The municipality of Delft has ‘10 to 20’ empty office buildings in mind that could be converted into student housing or office spaces for starting entrepreneurs. With this move, Delft wants to help solve the lack of student housing. Students have been pushing for such action for many years, but in practice it seldom works out, as the building owners usually do not want to cooperate.

Laptop assault
Dr Frank Rybicki, and an assistant professor in the Mass Media department at Valdosta State University (Georgia, USA), was arrested last week for his behaviour in class – charged with assault, a serious crime. But all that Dr Rybicki allegedly did was accidentally close a laptop computer on a student’s hands, because the student was surfing non-class related websites. The student then began arguing about closing the laptop and about websites she visited while in class, before pressing assault charges. Dr Rybicki was arrested and suspended from the university, and the police have ordered students who were in the class “not to talk to anybody about the incident”. 

No empty threat
Dutch Secretary of State, Halbe Zijlstra, did not have a good week. Student organizations announced they would take the state to court if Zijlstra’s bill, which fines students who study too long, passes Parliament. And that is no empty threat, based on advice provided by Stibbe, a Dutch law firm, which has called it a ramshackle bill. However, it is still far from certain the bill will ultimately pass Senate. This week the Christian party, SGP, said it wants to protect students who have already studied for too long. If the SGP votes against Zijlstra’s bill, it will become almost impossible to get it passed in the Senate.

Tough choices
The faculty of Architecture has expressed doubts about the decentralised selection of first-year students in 2012. The faculty has not decided how to select students according to the numerus fixus system. “It’s a lot of work and what is the yield?” asks director of education, Krik van Ees. Money also plays a role. Van Ees believes the Architecture faculty is able to select. The University of Cambridge uses the ‘Thinking Skills Assessment’ in selecting students and is willing to make a Dutch version. “That’s interesting, and we haven’t rejected this yet,” says Van Ees. “We’re also considering the method used by the faculty of Industrial Design Engineering.” That faculty intends to select 15 percent of its students in two steps. The first step would be via questions answered via internet, and the second a meeting at which students must do some design work while being observed and assessed.    

Tough talk
The confidential counsellors employed by TU Delft have received 31 reports regarding ‘intimidation by the organisation’. The director of Human Resources calls this “tough talk”, but intends to take the issue seriously. In their annual report for 2010, the confidential counsellors stated that they receive more and more reports of employees who feel pressured by the organisation. The counsellors speak of ‘intimidation by the organisation’, which means the employees not only feel intimidated by a specific manager but also increasingly by a ‘stronghold’ of managers and human resource advisers who go about their business will all the tact and sensitivity of a steamroller, the counsellors reported. The director of Human Resources, Nynke Jansen, would like the confidential counsellors to be more factual and nuanced in their reporting:  “That said, it’s very disturbing if people experience it like this. Every complaint is one too many.”       

Goodbye cash
De Volkskrant reported that illegal aliens are sometimes offered money to leave the Netherlands. These payoffs allow the illegals to build new lives in their home countries. Many aliens are asylum seekers who’ve applied for but failed to receive residency. According to Rob Bezema, of the Repatriation and Departure Service, his governmental agency also offers the aliens custom-made solutions; for example, before being sent back home, a Nepalese man was given a pasta-making machine to start a restaurant with, while an Egyptian was given four camels and an Angolan woman a manicure set for starting her own beauty parlour. De Volkskrant reports that offering cash or parting gifts is much cheaper and more efficient than the cost of detaining people in holding cells for months or even years in some cases.

Editor Redactie

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