“What disturbs me is that everyone is driven to achieve at a high level”, Bussemaker quoted herself from an interview with de Volkskrant newspaper two years ago. “Everyone with a pre-university education aims for university. A senior secondary vocational education and training diploma is seen as not being enough, while it is actually a great diploma. It’s much more important that each student ends up in the right place.”

Bussemaker stated today that although this pronouncement has dogged her, she still stands firmly behind it. She feels that the pressure to achieve is on the increase in the Netherlands and warns that we shouldn’t allow this to go too far.

Psychological pressure to succeed

Is it better to be an unsuccessful lawyer than a successful plumber? There is a ‘world of unhappiness’ behind this thought, stated the minister. “Always having to be on your toes and just getting by, by the skin of your teeth. Always being the worst in the class. Not being able to play with your friends because you have extra tutoring. And if you’re an unsuccessful lawyer, never seeing your children grow up because you have to work overtime evening after evening, because you actually can’t keep up with that high tempo.”

She gave South Korea as a daunting example. This country is facing ‘a terrifying number of suicides among young people, related to the psychological pressure to succeed at school’. They are now beginning to see the error of this.

Not a warehouse

Aiming for a healthy society and not focusing only on high success rates and competition has consequences for education according to Bussemaker. “Universities then won’t be warehouses that deliver as many students as possible to the labour market in the shortest time possible. Neither will they be supermarkets, in which students search for happiness by selecting popular subjects that are at eye level at the checkout.”

This means that education needs to offer space for ‘self-development and relevance to society’ while at the same time ‘the labour market perspective does play a role’. Lecturers should help students to become ‘thoughtful citizens’ and ‘not look away when they see signs that things aren’t going well with a student. In turn, students need to behave as ‘value-bearers of the future’.

Delicate balance

And politicians? They need to ‘create the conditions to safeguard the balance between performance and happiness’, she said to the administrators in her audience. She hopes that all those who succeed her remember the ‘delicate balance at play between high-quality education and happy students’.

Critics, however, point to the fact that pressure has increased in line with increasing costs of studying. For example, during Bussemaker’s term in office, the basic grant has been abolished. She did not mention this in her speech.