Last Monday, the new report Van afvinken naar aanvonken (‘From ticking boxes to sparking the flame’) could count on a particularly miffed response from the two national student unions ISO and LSVb. In the report, the committee advised allowing research universities and universities of applied sciences to use the money from the terminated base grant for other purposes besides improving the quality of their education programmes.

The unions’ criticism is shared by outgoing Education Minister Bussemaker. In a brief letter to Parliament, the Minister emphasised that the money is intended for improving higher education. “I see no reason to deviate from this course.”

Now that the Netherlands’ base grant has been abolished, freeing up hundreds of millions of euro for research universities and universities of applied sciences, the Dutch legislative intends to make ‘quality agreements’. But what will they entail? A committee headed by the King’s Commissioner Wim van de Donk was tasked with advising government on the matter.

Officialese

Cushioning its statements in careful officialese, the committee wrote of the interrelation between education, research and valorisation. “In other words, assets that are intended for education quality can be used for a broader range of purposes than education quality alone.”

The students clearly disagree. And the research universities and universities of applied sciences also hastened to announce that they don’t plan to break any existing promises. A number of other points in the report also met with heavy criticism.

But Minister Bussemaker hasn’t committed herself any further. She applauds the committee’s work, speaking of “valuable recommendations for the elaboration of future quality agreements”. In the closing period of her office, the Minister will be preparing these quality agreements. “I will be leaving decisions on this matter to the next Cabinet”.

Performance agreements

The past few years saw an experiment with performance agreements in the higher education sector. The Dutch research universities and universities of applied sciences made agreements with the Ministry of Education about matters like students’ progress, drop-out rates in the first year and further education for academic staff. Institutions that fail to meet their agreements would be docked a share of their funding. And indeed, this has happened to six universities of applied sciences.

The Van de Donk Committee was asked to determine what we can learn from this experiment and to make recommendations for the future.