When student grants were abolished in the Netherlands a couple of years ago, getting a degree suddenly became a lot more expensive – thousands of euros more expensive. In exchange for students suddenly having to cough up so much money, tertiary education institutions were allocated hundreds of millions of euros, to be spent on improvements to their degree programmes.
The agreements just concluded are designed to provide the universities with a foundation on which to provide the promised quality improvements. The two documents, each thirteen pages long, outline how the ‘target agreements’ will be implemented, and what consequences the universities will face if they fail to meet the requirements.
While student associations ISO and LSVb are still unhappy about the abolition of student grants for all students, they are happy with this particular result – the fact that students will be given a greater say in their own degree programmes. For their part, the universities and universities of applied sciences are happy as well, since they will continue to be autonomous: the Minister does not intend to get involved in the way in which the universities spend the money.
“It is great that administrators, students and lecturers will now be able to decide for themselves how to use the money that became available when we stopped giving students grants,” she said in her own press release.
In the next couple of years, universities and universities of applied sciences will formulate their “intentions and objectives” regarding more intensive teaching methods, improved supervision of students, proper educational facilities, refresher courses for lecturers, improving university success rates (including access to tertiary education and equal opportunities) and the development of talent ‘in both degree-related and extracurricular activities’.
Education accreditation organisation NVAO will keep an eye on things, but will not monitor too closely. For the next two years, no one will suffer any consequences if programme boards and student participation bodies make a mess of things, as the millions of euros generated by the abolition of student grants are earmarked for higher education and are not subject to any conditions.
After the first two years, NVAO will assess whether the universities’ plans have the right level of support, meet the formal requirements and are feasible. The assessors are not expected to voice an opinion on the actual content of the decisions. Furthermore, NVAO will evaluate whether things are going according to plan, both in the interim and at the end of the period, focusing on questions such as whether student participation bodies are being involved in the decision-making process (as they are supposed to be) and whether targets are being attained.
If an education institution gets it wrong, it may no longer have a say in how to use some of the funds it has been allocated, starting from 2024. These funds will then need to be spent on lecturers’ plans for improved degree programmes (by means of so-called Comenius grants). In other words, this ‘punishment’ is designed to ensure that students will not pay the price if their university makes a mistake.
Since NVAO’s assessment is to be performed in a manner that does not involve a great deal of red tape for universities, it will be incorporated into an assessment most large education institutions have to undergo anyway: the University Quality Assurance Assessment. Smaller schools which have chosen not to undergo the Quality Assurance Assessment will be subject to a different type of assessment.
What is notable about the new agreements is that they mark the first time that reasonably hard standards have been formulated with regard to strengthening student participation bodies, which will play a vital role in the universities’ attempts to meet their targets. Not that the boards are receiving an awful lot of support. “Major universities and universities of applied sciences will grant the student members of their central student participation bodies at least eight hours per week, while universities and universities of applied sciences with fewer than ten thousand students will grant them at least four hours per week.”
Moreover, education institutions can easily get out of keeping this particular promise if they have a plausible-sounding story: “These minimum standards are subject to an apply-or-explain-why-you-are-not-applying rule.”
“We would like to see students be given more hours to serve on advisory boards,” said ISO President Rhea van der Dong. “But this does constitute a first step in the right direction.” For his part, LSVb President Tariq Sewbaransingh is actually “quite proud” of the additional allowances made for advisory boards. “This is a great step forward, particularly for student participation bodies at universities of applied sciences.”