At some point in her life, she wants to study again. In fact, notes Ingrid van Engelshoven, she already is in her spare time. The same way other people relax with an evening of Netflix, she likes to browse through the free online lectures and courses on Coursera. And listen to a lecture about international security by Leiden professor Edwin Bakker, for example. “I love that sort of thing.”
Although she doesn’t have much spare time anymore. Van Engelshoven has been Minister of Education in the third Rutte government for almost five months now. And as she likes to emphasise, this is the first time a D66 member is handling this ministry. “Education, culture, equal rights and science… I have a fantastic portfolio.”
Will there be any obvious clues for the higher education sector that it’s dealing with a D66 Minister? Van Engelshoven gives us a whole list, but the key pointer would be ‘quality agreements’ with research universities and universities of applied sciences about the allocation of the ‘student grant advance’ (studievoorschotmiddelen) – i.e. the millions freed up by the termination of the basic grant scheme.
The new loan system has made studying thousands of euros more expensive, but this is offset by a key improvement: better education. After all, the higher education sector will be adding hundreds of millions of euros to its budget. The question remains whether this additional funding will become money well spent. Which is why the Ministry will be working with ‘quality agreements’. And these will be markedly different from the concrete ‘performance agreements’ of old.
“We won’t be adding any new national standards,” says a determined Van Engelshoven. “We want less focus on returns and a better eye for quality and the development of the curricula. We won’t be determining which steps the universities of applied sciences and research universities need to take to improve their education programmes.”
In that case, who checks whether everything is running smoothly? In the true spirit of D66, the ‘democratisation party’, Van Engelshoven passes the buck to the participation councils. In these representative bodies, students and lecturers meet with university administrators to discuss how funds should be allocated. “It has to be absolutely clear to us that plans were properly discussed with the representative bodies. This will be a responsibility of the institutions themselves.”
And in the unfortunate event that this hasn’t happened? Particularly the student members of participation councils complain of their weak bargaining position. They are given little time to prepare themselves for this role and reimbursements can vary considerably. Administrators are in a far stronger position. Recently, one of the UvA student parties even dissolved out of frustration with their limited options to participate.
“When students tell me they aren’t given enough opportunity to prepare, I’m definitely listening,” says Van Engelshoven. She wants universities of applied sciences and research universities to jointly determine the minimum amount of support that should be afforded to the student representatives. These agreements need to be recorded and enforced.
In addition, the Ministry will be setting up a kind of information desk that the members of participation councils can turn to with their questions.
Within the ranks
Where do the members of these representative bodies actually get their information from? The universities of applied sciences in particular have very few independent news channels. And every now and then, these internal outlets also come under pressure within the research universities. “I believe these independent media organisations are very important,” says Van Engelshoven. “We need to put more emphasis on them.”
After all, research universities and universities of applied sciences would like to see less supervision on the Ministry’s part: they prefer to talk with their own students and lecturers. And Van Engelshoven agrees. “I’m willing to put my head on the block for this, but they need to help me raise confidence in this approach. And this includes press scrutiny from within the ranks. Internal media outlets can help raise critical questions like: how does this work exactly?”
But some problems may prove less easy to solve with a bit more participation or an independent press. The research universities in particular complain of having to handle more and more students, with less and less funding per student. And, hardly surprising, this has ramped up their workload and put their education activities under pressure, according to the universities. Concerned academics and unions are already preparing new protests.
Van Engelshoven brushes these fears aside. After all, the cancellation of the basic grant scheme has freed up new funds that can be spent on higher education. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of euros here. And research will also be allocated a cool extra 400 million: “Far from negligible. I’m glad that we will be investing on this scale. No other sector will be getting as much extra money as education.”
What about the workload then? These stories about the pressure of work are real enough, Van Engelshoven hastens to add. But maybe the universities of applied sciences and research universities should take their share of the blame: “in many cases, it isn’t even caused by the requirements set by national legislation.” According to the Minister, educational institutions are themselves to blame for ‘a feeling of high pressure of work’ among their employees, due to all the rules and regulations they’ve adopted.
Try and be a bit more creative, is her advice. The education sector could benefit a great deal from new methods like ‘blended learning’, which combines online and regular education activities. “I think this is an interesting innovation and I’ve noticed that students themselves are actually asking for it.” Education could be made smarter and more up-to-date, according to Van Engelshoven.
You’d almost think she means ‘more efficient’. The universities of applied sciences and research universities need to economise a bit more to cover a deficit in the Ministry’s budget. This cut has been included in the budget under the header ‘more efficient education’. When lecturers make their education activities more efficient by adopting ‘blended learning’, will the government grasp this as an opportunity to make some cuts?
Van Engelshoven seems miffed by the very suggestion. “I get that you’re trying to trigger a response, but it’s a bit unfair. For me, these are two completely separate issues. The previous government left a budget deficit – one part of which has been resolved, while the other still has to be covered. And it had to be given some label or other.” She would have preferred a different name, hints the Minister.
Back to the workload then. This is also caused by there being far more students than there used to be. Which is due, in part, to a new influx of international students. More and more programmes are offered in English, with Dutch nationals actually forming a minority in dozens of programmes. The BON action committee has announced that it be instituting proceedings against English-language education.
Van Engelshoven is unruffled by the news. She calls it an ‘interesting dilemma’ and emphasises that the Netherlands can’t do without internationalisation. The intake of international students helps improve the quality of the education programmes and benefits the Dutch private sector. “I recently visited ASML, the manufacturer of photolithography systems. We serve a global market, is what they told me, so they’re looking for people who know their way around other countries. And in some sector, we basically have a shortage of qualified professionals. So it’s a good idea to welcome foreign talent.”
But she recognises that we should also safeguard the quality of our education. And maybe this quality comes under pressure when certain programmes are swamped with international students. “We need to keep our lecture halls in balance.”
Except this isn’t solved with a single measure, warns Van Engelshoven. “We need to maintain a sense of balance when discussing this issue, because there’s a lot at stake. International students are a source of income for the Netherlands. Many of them stay around and generate extra economic growth. Take Italy, for example. A lot of programmes there are offered in Italian, and the country can hardly be called a frontrunner in international academic research.”
She isn’t in favour of a freeze for international students. “I want to avoid this predictable overreaction, in the shape of some new policy measure: ‘We need to stop this Anglification – let’s set percentages!’.” She doesn’t want to reveal what she has in mind yet, however, or which options are being considered. But one thing’s for sure: “It won’t be ‘one size fits all’!”
Doesn’t it all sound a bit vague and remote? One of the new government’s measures couldn’t be more concrete, however: first-year tuition fees will be cut by 50%. And the same applies for students entering the second year of a teacher training programme.
As far as accessibility is concerned: wouldn’t it have been better if the government raised the supplementary grant? Now students from rich families are also benefiting from this provision – even though they probably didn’t feel that much of an obstacle to begin with. Van Engelshoven has no trouble presenting her position.
“This 50% cut is also good news for students from a median-income background. And let’s not exaggerate the issue of accessibility. Students can borrow money at a very low interest rate. A few parties that opposed the loan system are warning us about a fear of borrowing among students, but so far this doesn’t seem the case. We ended up removing the tick box for ‘borrow maximum amount’ in DUO.”
Ingrid van Engelshoven (1966) served as the party chair for D66 and Deputy Mayor of Education in The Hague. After attending secondary school in Belgium, Van Engelshoven moved to the Netherlands to study Political Science at Radboud University Nijmegen and Law at Leiden University. She has worked as a policy officer for D66’s party group in the House of Representatives, was a partner in a consultancy and served as Director of Stichting Verantwoord Alcoholgebruik (STIVA), a sector initiative set up by the manufacturers and importers of beer, wine and spirits.