Not that big a deal?

[Morag Goodwin] Monday, April 6, 2020

On one day last week, I conducted 53 interviews with potential students interested in starting our LL.B. Global Law. The interviews are the conversational equivalent of a hit-and-run, limited to +/- 10 minutes by the sheer number of registrations. The applicants came from all over, with every continent represented, although European students dominated that day. In order to provide structure, we ask the applicants in advance to identify a global challenge that speaks to them. We also ask them to think about what it is that makes this challenge global and what law might have to do with it. Pretty standard stuff.

Last year’s interviewees were overwhelmingly focused on environmental matters: climate change, cross-border pollution, plastics in the ocean. The student strikes and Greta Thunberg were regularly in the news and it was not surprising that 17-18 year olds would choose such a topic. So I settled into my tiny upstairs office, with my headphones and water bottle, in anticipation of a day of talking about little else but pandemics, global health crises, closed borders, big pharma – anything and everything COVID-19 related. And it didn’t happen. In 53 conversations, only 2 mentioned anything even vaguely connected to the current crisis, and both did so in a way that was tangential; that is, they used it as an illustration of a broader point that they were making but they hadn’t selected it as the global challenge that spoke to them. Instead, the two themes that came up most regularly were gender inequality for women, and AI or technology-related matters, such as data privacy, for men. And none of those who mentioned data privacy used the current calls for greater data collection in order to track infections rates or patterns as an example.

It was a gloriously sunny day in the middle of the Netherlands. I asked about the weather where they were and whether they could go out. There was a lot of shrugging of shoulders or sighs about being trapped indoors. All of the kids that I spoke to were on lockdown or were anticipating that restrictive measures would unfold within days. Yet this did not trigger reflections on a pandemic as a global challenge. Similarly, when I asked whether they had questions for me, only 4 asked whether we had plans to accept students that might not be able to travel to Tilburg in August to start their education.

I am not sure what to make of this. I understand that teenagers might not be good at planning 4 months ahead, but do my (non-scientific) observations reflect a form of denial about what is going on outside their front door? Is this a refusal to see it, or have they been confronted with so many other crises in their short lives that they know that all they need to do is wait for it to be over? Do they simply feel unaffected by it, beyond the mild inconvenience of spending a sunny day indoors, because their parents are not of the age at which the risk of complications is significant? Or perhaps because they are sitting at home in safety and security, where they have access to a garden, a full fridge and a decent place to study? This latter point might explain the contrast between their possible indifference and the heightened levels of stress that we are seeing among our students, especially among those who have been marooned in student rooms. Or maybe no-one selected global health as a challenge because they thought that everyone else would, and they wanted to stand out as an original thinker.

I really don’t know how to explain the apparent indifference. Perhaps, like our potential students, we too are in denial. What are we doing conducting interviews as if the academic year will begin as normal at the end of August? Is our non-active decision to stick to the usual admissions schedule a means of providing reassurance, to us and to them?

I have another 42 interviews scheduled later this week. Although I was aware of the emerging pattern last week, I didn’t manage to make it an active point during the interviews. This time around if the candidate doesn’t mention COVID-19, I will ask them why. If anyone is interested, I would be happy to provide a short update!

Morag Goodwin | Tilburg | April 6, 2020

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