Doing 'regional research' in the Northern Netherlands: reflections from a 'global' student team
|Date:||15 July 2021|
Prof. Louise Meijering: The Research Master in Spatial Sciences trains students for an (academic) research career. Students come from different countries and from a range of disciplinary backgrounds including planning, human geography, sociology, demography, environmental science, psychology, anthropology, American studies, and philosophy. In September 2020, fifteen students with seven different nationalities started the programme. The course Joint Multidisciplinary Research Project (JMRP) is the start of their first semester in Groningen. This is an important circumstance, since it implies that all students are new to the programme, most new to the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, and many new to Groningen and/or the Netherlands.
In this highly diverse context, the main learning objective of the JMRP course is to work together to tackle a research problem that has been identified by local and regional stakeholders, such as municipalities, housing associations, architecture firms or non-profit organisations. The teams work on well-defined assignments that challenge them to apply their knowledge and skills in real world settings. As a teacher, I feel privileged to coach the teams, in terms of conceptual frameworks and methodological approaches, the feasibility of their plans, and especially in terms of how they collaborate in their group and with the stakeholder that has commissioned their assignment. What is an asset, but also potentially challenging, is that highly diverse student teams work on topics and projects that are grounded in the specific realities of the Northern Netherlands. In this blog, one of the teams from this year reflects on their experiences, and shows how a global group of students has generated new and positive insights with regard to the persistence of small schools located on the Wadden Islands.
As the first batch of students starting the Island and Sustainability track of the Spatial Sciences Research Master, it was fitting to start our academic year doing research for the Island Schools project coordinated by Learning Hub Friesland.
Many island schools are facing shrinking school populations, creating a big challenge for the schools to continue providing education and remain an important part of the social infrastructure for island communities. Vlieland encounters this problem for its school De Jutter, which provides primary and secondary education and offers services tailored to the youth. The Island Schools project aims to stimulate innovation in education and to have islands schools learning from each other. In discussion with Learning Hub Friesland we developed a focus that suited both the project and our personal interests, on the roles island schools have as social infrastructure and the contribution they can make to the social capital of the island.
Our research consisted of a case study of Vlieland and a comparison with Astypalaia and the Isle of Mull. Initially, we had hoped to use participatory methods such as focus group discussions on the island of Vlieland. We also wanted to include a variety of perspectives by including long-time residents, newcomers to the island, and school pupils. Unfortunately, we had to adapt to the changing circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic. Stricter measures made it no longer feasible to do focus groups and ultimately we decided not to visit Vlieland. It was of course a disappointment, but we knew from the start that this was a possibility and we adapted our methods quickly. We conducted online interviews with headmasters on the three islands and residents of Vlieland, created an essay assignment for De Jutter pupils and a survey for Vlieland residents.
Our international comparison of island schools gave us insights not only about the shared common aspects but also the differences. All three schools, Isle of Mull, Astypalea and Vlieland share the challenges of their geographical remoteness, sensitive to the number of pupils for class management, and hiring teachers. They also expressed a need to have flexible policies that are adaptable to the specific contexts in which island- or otherwise remote schools have to operate. However, they also shared the benefits of having a tight community (although they all mentioned that sometimes people get too nosey). The biggest difference was that the schools of Isle of Mull and Astypalea took in a more central place in the community and the schools’ facilities and the multifunctional potential was used more fully by the community.
According to our survey, interview and essay results, we found that there is a demand for facilitating school infrastructure to engage more in the island community. For example, using school facilities for life-long learning education, Dutch language programs for international residents, community garden, community center etc. During our data collection, the housing issue, the high price for young families moving in, was an interesting finding. This led us to think more about a holistic approach for the island school management. Not only the school, school community, but also the island community, local and central government need to collaborate to increase pupil population and usage of the school infrastructure. We came to see the island as a social ecosystem in which the community, policies, and the school as social infrastructure can influence and support each other.
The JMRP course was a very good experience for us, even if the pandemic got in the way a little bit. For a large part this is due to the easy contact we had with our client, Simon was very helpful and supportive of our ideas and the choices we made.
The chance to work with students from the UG has greatly enriched the Island Schools project (see www.islandschools.eu), allowing us to take the time to ask some of the fundamental research questions that you don’t always find the time for in the day-to-day running of a project. One of the final outcomes of our project will be policy advice on the role that island schools play for their communities, so the results of the student research projects will mean that our work is much more evidence-based. It was fascinating to see how connected the school was to the various issues affecting the island community, not only as an institution but also as a place for islanders to come together. This on the one hand helps us to make the case for the important role played by schools, but also helped us to take a step back and think about the various stakeholders (islanders themselves, governments, businesses) who need to be on board for a small island school to be able to achieve its full potential. We’re still in the first year of Island Schools, so the work done by the student groups will certainly shape the course of the project over the coming years. As a result of the students’ findings, we’ll certainly be paying much more attention to use our project to engage with the wider island community around the topic of sustainability.