Less than a week after the general elections, the higher education sector is handed a report it can chew on for some time to come: Van afvinken naar aanvonken (‘From ticking off to spurring on’). The report recommends making new performance agreements – but less hastily and less focussed on ticking boxes than in the previous round.
A committee headed by Wim van de Donk, the King’s Commissioner of North Brabant and Professor of Public Administration in Tilburg, evaluated the performance agreements reached between the Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences and the Ministry in 2012. The institutions that failed to achieve their targets would be docked some of their funding. This happened to six universities of applied sciences.
A summary of the key recommendations:
- Use the hundreds of millions of euros freed up by the introduction of the studievoorschot (the advance replacing the former base grant) to finance a new kind of performance-related funding scheme for the higher education sector: those who take the right steps are rewarded with extra money.
- Only make ‘generic’ agreements with the higher education sector as a whole (i.e. don’t make separate performance agreements with each university of applied sciences and university).
- Allow universities of applied sciences and universities to draw up their own plans after consultation with students, teaching staff and the people in the same field of work.
- Appoint a special permanent committee to evaluate these plans.
- Formulate an outlook on the higher education sector and determine which points of departure educational institutions should adopt for their plans.
- Keep 7 percent of the current funds in reserve (similar to what already happened in recent years) and use this budget for ‘mission funding’: this avoids the situation where the educational institutions all adopt the same ‘mission’.
Too much emphasis on the numbers
“The performance agreements of recent years need to be developed further, in a new shape,” says Van de Donk. The performance agreements gave rise to a broader debate about improving the education sector – which in the view of the committee was a positive development. But there was still too much emphasis on the numbers. Occasionally, it seemed more a case of ticking the boxes than anything else – as reflected in the report’s title.
“Often, these numbers hide a very complex story,” explains Van de Donk. “Take an accounting degree programme. Employers often hire these students while they’re still in their final year. Which means these students start a new job on top of their graduation work, so that it often takes them longer to finish their theses. If you only look at the numbers, these students all seem to be taking too long for their studies – even though there’s actually no need to worry.”
In the view of Van de Donk and his committee, the big question isn’t how quickly students earn their degree. “The issue is how the system adapts to a changing society, economy and culture. That’s what our funding for higher education needs to connect to.”
Allow students to offer their input
‘Students are saying: That’s our money, so we want to co-determine what’s done with it. And they are absolutely right.’
The introduction of the performance agreements in 2012 was rather rushed in Van de Donk’s view. “Students, team members and academic staff were hardly or not at all involved when they made those agreements. But you’ll have to sit around the table at some point: what’s our position? Which approach will we be taking? Particularly now that the funds from the basic grant are being ploughed into the higher education sector. Students are saying: ‘That’s our money, so we want to co-determine what’s done with it.’ And they are absolutely right.”
“This experiment has taught us that you need to make agreements of this kind with the wider community, the stakeholders – not just with the institutions’ senior management and the Ministry. You can be sure that physiotherapists will make different agreements than scholars specialising in the late Middle Ages.” And there’s no way agreements of this kind can all be measured with the same yardstick, in Van de Donk’s view.
According to the committee, agreements that lack a financial incentive are ineffective. “Any type of funding is a form of guidance – whatever you opt for – so you might as well concentrate on making smart choices,” says Van de Donk. “That’s why we need to learn from the recent experiment and arrive at quality agreements that include as few perverse incentives as possible.”
That’s why they propose appointing a new committee that makes a thorough review of each institution’s plans once every five years. Which direction is the institution heading in? Has it discussed its course with students, academic staff and employers? Institutions that have drawn up a carefully considered plan are provided with extra funds. According to the Van de Donk Committee, this review should adhere to no more than a few general indicators. The main thing is to encourage universities of applied sciences and universities to draw up a solid plan.
The right steps
‘They check whether you are doing things the right way. But who actually checks whether you are taking the right steps?’
But why an extra committee? Couldn’t the plans be evaluated by the education accreditation organisation NVAO and the inspectorate? “They’re there to ensure basic quality,” says Van de Donk. “They check whether you are doing things the right way. But who actually checks – and this is a slightly different focus – whether you are taking the right steps?”
He offers an example. Before a university can launch a new degree programme, it first has to be approved by a special committee. This ‘Commissie doelmatigheid hoger onderwijs’ (‘Higher Education Efficiency Committee’) checks whether there is a need for the programme, and whether educational institutions aren’t needlessly copying each other’s offer. “But five, six years on, nobody actually asks how the programme’s faring. In theory, this means programmes can slowly waste away, with fewer and fewer students and limited funds, without anyone settling the matter at the sector level. Someone who says: ‘Let’s merge those degree programmes offered by multiple educational institutions into a single, strong programme.’”
When senior administrators don’t give thought to where their students will end up after graduation, or when they fail to discuss their plans with their students and academic staff, this needs to have consequences. “I would find this unacceptable,” says Van de Donk. “It’s not an option! We need to judge plans on their own merits, as well as determine whether or not they are in line with the development of the higher education sector as a whole.”
But what use is it to students if their educational institutions receive fewer funds due to a lack of effective plans? Wouldn’t they be even worse off? Apparently, they have not only enrolled in a sub-par programme – it won’t even get the funding it requires to raise standards.
Van de Donk sees it differently. “Individually, students also benefit from a healthy, well-functioning higher education system. The basic quality of the programmes themselves is safeguarded by NVAO and the Education Inspectorate: if they don’t pull out a red card, the education satisfies the standards. But things can only improve if you encourage educational institutions to pave their own way, offer interesting programmes and develop inspiring plans.”
In fact: if the Committee has its way, the Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences will have no choice but to do so. The only way they can count on extra money is if they manage to consolidate their education, research and social impact into a single, cohesive institutional plan.