“A fast way to destroy institutions would be to have students elect the Executive Board”

Students haven’t lost their basic student grant for nothing, Minister Bussemaker claims. She is doing her utmost to ensure that the millions that she now has at her disposal are spent responsibly. “I want to be able to look students in the eye later on.” A discussion with the Minister about the student loan system, the Maagdenhuis protests and a new political year.

Thousands of first years are embarking on their studies, many living away from home for the first time. What advice would Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, like to give them? “In a moment I’ll share some wise words about student loans and reminding them that they have to pay it all back,” she laughs. “But first I’d like to tell students: take advantage of all the opportunities you are given. See what student associations have to offer, study clubs, sports clubs … Your time at university is a formative period.” Studying is not just about getting study credits, is what the Minister of Education means.

So what are those wise words about student loans?

“Consider them wisely. Make your own informed decision. The loan and supplementary grant are intended for your studies, not for going on holiday. Students can also take a part-time job. Working in cafes and bars can be fun, but you can also look for a job that relates to your studies. In any case, don’t forget to apply for a student loan, because then you’ll get a student card for public transport.”

Studying without a basic student grant

This is the Minister’s main political achievement: new bachelor and master students will no longer receive a basic student grant. Opponents warned that fewer young people would go on to further education, but at the moment there seem to be just as many first years as last year. Bussemaker: “I always said: there may be a slight dip in the number of registrations, but that will balance out again. I’m delighted that we haven’t even experienced that dip.”

Laughing at your critics?

“Everyone has to come to their own conclusions, but I feel justified. We haven’t asked anything unreasonable from young people. I’m sure that new students must have been very disappointed; I understand that. But it is a huge step forwards; we can now invest up to a billion euros more in higher education.”

Universities and universities of applied sciences dispute that figure. They say that it is much less.

“The money that is now available thanks to the introduction of the student loan system is as much as one billion euros. That’s a fact. We’ve put it all in tables. I understand that universities and colleges want even more money and so they are questioning the amount. But this is it. We plan to reach qualitative agreements about how we spend this money. I want to be able to look students in the eye later on. I definitely want to make sure the money doesn’t slip through our fingers.”

Occupations in Amsterdam

Last year, Bussemaker won the battle regarding the basic student grant. But the dust had barely settled before protests broke out in Amsterdam with a week-long occupation of the Maagdenhuis. The Amsterdam campaigners attracted plenty of media attention.

What was your reaction to that occupation?

“I tried to understand what the campaigners wanted, but it wasn’t easy to find out. For example, I wanted to visit the Maagdenhuis, but only if it could somehow be prepared and there wouldn’t be any pushing and shoving at the door. In the end I didn’t go during the occupation. They just couldn’t agree. There was always someone who didn’t want me to go or who was against the subject we wanted to discuss.”

“I did recognise the undercurrent of the protest: lecturers who don’t feel they own their studies and students who feel that it’s too much about quantitative results. But what you mustn’t forget is that in a large part of the country the protests did not resonate at all.”

A new political year

Now that the student loan system has safely passed through both Houses and peace has more or less returned to the Maagdenhuis, a new political year begins. Bussemaker is discussing her strategic agenda for higher education with the House of Representatives and defending a Bill aimed at improving the balance between participation in decision-making and governance.

Have the actions in Amsterdam influenced your plans?

“I haven’t changed anything as a result of the protests. Most of the plans had already been made and I am too autonomous to suddenly start changing things. But I recognise some problems, so I felt supported in my plans.”

Such as?

“Take the vast number of temporary contracts in science, for example. In some areas, these have soared. We are trying to do something about that. Education must be appreciated more at universities and at universities of applied sciences I want to link the lecturers more with the education.”

‘A fast way to destroy institutions would be to do exactly that.’

Jet Bussemaker

According to critics, you have not listened at all to the call for democratisation in your Bill about participation in decision-making.

“I read an angry article by the SP. They want students to elect the Executive Board. Well, if you want to cause the downfall of institutions fast, go ahead. There are very complicated processes, particularly in big institutions. Anyone with such wild ideas should look abroad. There are universities in the UK where students barely have any input and who are very satisfied and vice versa. There is no such thing as a perfect system.”

A majority in the House of Representatives wants more power for the education committees. They should be given right of consent in the education programme.

“I would like to explore how we can strengthen the education committees. But I would say that you don’t achieve that with statutory changes alone. Look how many councils and committees find it difficult to get student members! We must also consider the participation culture. I’m interested in David van Reybrouck’s idea of a draw procedure and calling students to serve on committees. That would prevent you always seeing the usual suspects on committees. You mustn’t always rely on formal consent.”

Yet students in one institution have more input than in another. Shouldn’t that be levelled out?

“I don’t want to have everything covered by rules and regulations. What would the minimum requirements then be? Are those the same for a university in Amsterdam as for a small university of applied sciences in Zeeland? Furthermore, minimum requirements soon become maximum norms. They become what everyone does.”

Jet Bussemaker (1961) has been Minister of Education, Culture and Science for the Labour Party in the Rutte II cabinet since 2012. She studied Politicology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), where she also obtained her PhD. She then worked as a lecturer and researcher at the UvA and the VU University Amsterdam, as well as for the government. In 2011 and 2012, she was dean of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

Bussemaker was initially a member of the Green Left (GroenLinks), but moved to the Labour Party (PvdA) and entered the House of Representatives representing that party in 1998. From 2007 to 2010, she was state secretary for Health, Welfare and Sport in the Balkenende IV cabinet.