When student grants were abolished a few years ago, universities and universities of applied sciences promised to increase their spending on teaching by 600 million euros. The Netherlands Court of Audit believes they probably failed to do so. And the Minister of Education, Culture and Science should have known this. Student grants were abolished in order to allow education institutions to inject hundreds of millions of previously unavailable euros into higher education. However, it was recognised that the first generation of students to attend university without a grant would not be able to reap the benefits of these financial injections: after all, the benefits would not be able to be felt for several years.

For this reason, Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences promised to spend significantly on their teaching programmes, in anticipation of the funds from the new student loans becoming available. They promised to spend an annual 200 million euros for three consecutive years, starting from 2015, in anticipation of the hundreds of millions of euros they would receive later.

Overly positive

However, the education institutions have not entirely kept their promises. Student associations such as the Dutch National Students’ Association (ISO) and the National Student Union (LSVb) warned at the time that this might happen, but the then Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, paid no heed. According to the Court of Audit, she presented the Lower House with an ‘overly positive and overly optimistic scenario’. Moreover, she completely trusted in the figures promised by umbrella organisations of universities and universities of applied sciences.

The universities and universities of applied sciences have stated that they have spent 860 million euros, which is much more than promised. However, the Court of Audit has found that only 280 million euros of this amount constituted demonstrable additional spending. A nearly identical amount (250 million euros) clearly does not constitute advance expenditures, while another 330 million euros were spent in a way whose exact nature is hard to determine. The Court of Audit finds it hard to believe that all this spending really constituted advance expenditures.

No say in the matter

To make matters worse, the student participation councils of the universities were not properly involved in the decision-making process either. This was understandable in the first year, as decisions had to be made very quickly. However, at one in four education institutions, students and members of staff did not have a say in how the additional funds were to be spent in the second year either. “We must learn from this experience,” said Francine Giskes, a member of the Court of Audit’s board.

Did the Minister deliberately provide the Lower House with incorrect information?

“The Minister did not play a foul game. That’s not what this is about. Maybe she was being a bit lazy. If universities and universities of applied sciences make promises that sound good, maybe you are less inclined to check their figures. We do think it is remarkable that the Ministry did not look into these figures further. We think it should have, because this was a major agreement that was subject to a lot of scrutiny.”

Have students received better teaching in the last three years?

“That was the main question informing our investigation. We will not pronounce on the quality of teaching, but rather on the amount of money spent on it. Universities were supposed to increase their spending on their teaching programmes by three times two hundred million euros. Were we able to find these sums in the books? We had a hard time doing so.”

The universities and universities of applied sciences have said that you did not define the exact nature of an ‘advance expenditure’ until after the three-year period. They think you are being unfair.

“That is not true. We have used the definition they themselves used at the time, i.e. additional spending on the quality of the education in the first three years of the new system. So if a university said it was going to appoint ten additional lecturers by way of ‘advance expenditure’, we checked whether it actually did appoint them. And obviously, we also wanted to know whether those ten new lecturers weren’t going to be hired anyway, because obviously, that would not constitute an additional spending.”

Sounds simple.

“Yet we have found that the nature of many expenditures is unclear. And you might as well know that we submitted our findings to the administrators several times, only for them to try and refute them.”

Your findings are not much of a surprise. Critics warned that this would happen before the new system was introduced.

“But they could have been wrong. We just had to check. The system could have worked just perfectly.”

Will the report actually have any impact? The student loan system will not be reversed and we now have a different Minister.

“We carried out this investigation because the debate on the funding of higher education institutions is never-ending. Billions of euros are spent on higher education. It is not silly to ask if that money is being spent properly. The worse the expenditures are accounted for, the more uneasy the politicians.”

And so you feel the funds arising from the new student loan system should remain visible in the annual reports. Do you feel it would be wise to demand greater accountability for the way in which education funds are used, as the Rathenau Instituut suggested recently?

“It is not our intention to ensure that universities and universities of applied sciences will once again have to account for every single one of their expenditures to the government. All we are saying is this: if higher education is getting additional funding, it must be clear to all players what is being done with these funds.

“How much money are the universities receiving, does it help them achieve their objectives, and do the student participation councils have a clear idea of how the money is being spent? These are things that need discussing. If we want the student loan system to actually improve higher education, we will have to make the right arrangements. We still have time to do so, as the big money is still to come in.”