Following the recent elections, the four political parties that introduced the current Dutch student loan system have lost their majority in the Lower House, if only by a small margin.
VVD lost eight seats in the Lower House, with PvdA retaining a mere nine of its former 38 seats. Even though GroenLinks (which jumped from four to fourteen seats) and D66 (19 seats, up from 12) gained a lot of new seats, their increased number of seats is not enough to keep the parties in favour of the loan system in charge. The four parties would now have a combined total of 75 seats, just short of the house majority.
The abolition of student grants was a rigorous measure that came in for a great deal of criticism but was passed by both the Lower and Upper Houses – an impressive political feat. Such a major intervention seems unlikely in the new political landscape.
Which means that student grants are not about to be re-introduced. It seems highly likely that VVD and D66 will be part of the new Cabinet, and they are unlikely to repeal the student grant system they supported themselves. Even if the Netherlands gets a government not involving VVD (e.g. a government comprised of CDA, D66, GroenLinks, SP, PvdA and ChristenUnie), such a government will still include three parties that supported the introduction of student loans.
But if student grants are not re-introduced, staunch opponents of the student loan system will want to be thrown another bone.
Parties such as CDA, ChristenUnie and SP may demand that tuition fees be reduced, which will have almost the same effect as the re-introduction of student grants. Alternatively, they may argue for more generous supplementary grants. After all, the main objective is to grant more students access to higher education.
It seems unlikely that we will see extreme measures in the short term. Will more funds be allocated to higher education? Undoubtedly – enough to placate D66 – but it will not be a tremendous amount. There simply aren’t enough parties who want funds to be allocated this way.
Will there be any major reforms to the way in which students are given a say in the governance of universities and universities of applied sciences? Let us first see how the representative advisory councils fare now that they have been granted additional powers. Will universities be allowed to select their own students? Supporters and opponents of the idea seem to be about equally numbered, which appears to be true for many divisive subjects.
Point at issue
The main point at issue will be the so-called “target agreements”, which state that universities and universities of applied sciences must somehow continuously improve the degree courses they offer, especially if they are to receive hundreds of millions of additional euros from the funds the government gained when it stopped paying out student grants.
As for what the new agreements will be like, no one has the foggiest. VVD would like to set new, hard-to-attain targets, as it has over the last few years, but is not receiving much support for this proposal. It seems even the election victor will have to compromise.