Minister Bussemaker is concerned about the impact of the student loan system on students with disabilities. “We have to do what is necessary to ensure that they still have access to higher education.”

What was your reaction when it emerged that fewer students from vulnerable groups are going on to study now that the basic grant is gone?

“Let me first point out that the data are, in general, what we expected. When we introduced the student loan system, we expected a temporary dip in the number of first-year students, and that dip should recover. I am glad that the participation of MBO and HAVO students in higher education is going well. Financial considerations are no more or no less important for MBO students than they were before. As far as that is concerned, the results are reassuring.

“But I do worry about students with disabilities. For them, it’s probably down to a combination of factors, in which the changes in social security also play a part. We need to discuss what we can do about this.”

Will a grant need to be re-introduced for these students after all?

“I don’t anticipate that. We have to do what is necessary to ensure that this group still has access to higher education. Perhaps this can also be achieved through better guidance.”

There are also fewer students benefitting from a supplementary grant and fewer students from the first generation without highly educated parents.

“The population is simply becoming more educated. There are just fewer students whose parents do not have a university degree. We’ve been watching this trend develop for a while. I don’t want to draw any hasty conclusions; I’m trying to analyse the situation very carefully.”

You have also said that there are fewer first-year students due to the stricter access requirements at the HBO-level (universities of applied sciences). The Association of Universities of Applied Sciences disagrees: that would only partially explain the decline.

“Listen, the universities of applied sciences have done the analysis themselves. They’ve gone down the wrong path if they have now come up with something else. This year, the number of first-year students fell by a good 8 per cent. Part of that decline can be explained by the bow wave effect of young people who wanted to start studying before the student loan system came in and went to study straight after their exams. Those students have already enrolled. Furthermore, the decrease is partly due to demographics, and partly due to stringent entry requirements, for example, for acceptance at teacher training colleges. And then there’s still 2.6 per cent left over, probably related to the student loan system. That is in line with the predictions.”

‘For years, we awarded the basic grant to parents with very high incomes. I still don’t see why they should get that extra money.’

Jet Bussemaker

Critics say that a social democratic minister should stand up for the weakest groups of society.

“Of course, but the whole student loan system has been set up precisely for that reason. For years, we awarded the basic grant to parents with very high incomes. I still don’t see why they should get that extra money. I think it’s very important that the supplementary grant has gone up, that a public transport card for younger MBO (intermediate vocational education) students has been introduced, and that we can pay more attention to the transition from MBO to HBO. It is starting to pay off. I see that the number of students dropping out in their first year seems to be decreasing. For the first time in many years, the number of part-time students is also starting to pick up. And we are going to invest in additional teachers. That’s what I stand for as a social democrat.”

Yet some people want to prove they are right: they did predict the problems, after all?

“I would urge everyone to look at this critically and refrain from cheap political point scoring. I see, for example, that more students from non-Western backgrounds are going on to further education: that’s great. People are also worried whether students without a basic grant would still choose a multi-year master’s degree. It seems that they are doing. Furthermore, and above all, everything is pointing towards a temporary dip, but I also want delve deeper into the situation to make sure that no structural problems will arise, for example, for students with disabilities.”

Are you not afraid that the gap between privileged and underprivileged children is getting wider?

“Don’t forget that some of the differences we see in higher education emerge much earlier: in primary and secondary education. We are trying everything there to change that; just look how we are tackling the CITO test.”