The job is nearly done. Jet Bussemaker, who represents the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), has been the Minister for Education, Culture and Science for the last 4.5 years. And now the elections are on their way. “It has not quite sunk in yet, since I am still right in the thick of it. I thought things would quiet down a bit, but they really haven’t.”
Proud of new student loans
The main question is what will happen to her policies after the elections. What course will her successor pursue, particularly with regard to the student loans with favourable interest rates introduced by Bussemaker? Students no longer receive grants, meaning that the government now has hundreds of millions of euros at its disposal which it can inject into the higher education system.
“It is the most significant reform in student funding in the last thirty years,” Bussemaker proudly announces. Many previous attempts to reform the system (for instance the fine for universities whose students do not graduate fast enough introduced by her predecessor, Halbe Zijlstra) had failed. Bussemaker received a phone call from VVD veteran Arie Pais, who was the Minister for Education forty years ago. “He wanted to do something like this at the time, but had been unsuccessful.”
Abolishing student loans
Some parties, such as CDA and SP, wish to reintroduce student grants after the elections. Bussemaker is highly dismissive of the idea. “I can’t imagine that CDA will actually go through with that. It means all investments must be repealed, or that the public transport card for students will no longer be guaranteed. As for SP, they always talk big, but four years ago this party wanted to cut the education budget by eight hundred million euros. That doesn’t strike me as a great idea either.”
She does not think it is likely to happen. “I can’t look into a crystal ball, but we have four parties supporting us.” After all, student loans with a favourable interest rate were the brainchild of two government parties, VVD and PvdA, plus two opposition parties, D66 and GroenLinks. “At least two of these parties will probably be in the next cabinet.”
She swears she is not blind to the rough edges of the system. “I probably deserve some criticism for putting disabled students and adolescents whose parents never attended university at a disadvantage. Next year more adolescents will go to university, which is a good thing, but we will keep an eye on these groups of students to make sure they are OK.”
Therefore, she does not expect old-style student grants to make a comeback after 15 March. So what is at stake for higher education? “The main decision will be whether the cabinet will want to invest in education or not. Will they abolish the public transport card for students? Will another fine be introduced for universities whose students do not graduate fast enough? I have not yet heard anything about tuition fees being raised, but I’m not ruling out that there are parties who want to do just that.”
Protecting minor degree courses
Another question that deserves some attention: how do the various parties view higher education? “There are parties that mainly consider degrees stepping stones to the job market. CDA and VVD want to assess whether degrees actually prepare students for a career, and they wish to reallocate funds to universities of technology, because this will benefit the economy. But other degree courses, such as less popular language degrees, must also be protected. I do think that departments offering less popular degrees must collaborate more often, because it is obviously quite strange to have a department that only has three students run by a full professor and two lecturers, while other lecturers face lecture theatres filled to the rafters. But we do need those small departments. Take Arabic, for instance. It has never been a popular degree, but now we do need people who speak the language of the Middle East. Or take the Ebola outbreak in Africa – we need anthropologists who understand how to stop diseases from spreading in that part of the world. I do love it when Delft University of Technology students come up with yet another brilliant invention, but higher education should not just be about that.”
Another thing that is at stake: the way in which universities and universities of applied sciences will get their funding from now on. Will they have to meet set quality targets? Will they lose funding if they fall short of these targets? This is what has happened in the last few years due to the “performance agreements”. Six universities of applied sciences lost some of their funding because their number of graduates proved insufficient (although Bussemaker did halve their “fines”).
The next steps will be determined by the next cabinet. “It may be better to give universities a financial incentive rather than threatening them with fines,” says Bussemaker. Even so, she defends the performance agreements, which she insists have good aspects. They also deal with the “profile” of education institutions. “For instance, we do not want all universities to focus exclusively on excellent students. We must reward universities who choose not to do so. Maybe this should be up to them, though. We did rather impose the system on them the last time around.”
Will she be the minister again?
Does she seek to be the Minister for Education in the next cabinet? “I think that is quite unlikely. One needs to be realistic about such matters,” she says, referring to PvdA’s current polling figures. “It also depends on the coalition agreement we will end up with. I will not join a cabinet that will sell off science cheaply and assign it to the Ministry of Economic Affairs.”
However, would that ever happen if her own party were to become a government party? “No, it wouldn’t. But even so, I’m not terribly keen on the idea after these four great years, even if I won’t say no just yet. Sometimes new people are required. I have been a member of cabinet for seven years now, and I’m all in favour of diversity.”