Many political decisions on higher education are based on ‘facts that are either not hard or incomplete’, said Judith Tielen, an MP for VVD, during the debate on the budget drawn up by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. “It makes things difficult and is annoying.”
The lack of hard facts is complicating the debate. In the run-up to the debate, Paul van Meenen, an MP for D66, had stated that universities were not using the funds they had been allocated and were hanging on to their reserves. The education institutions were unpleasantly surprised to hear the accusation. They weren’t leaving the funds unused at all, they said. Van Meenen also came in for a great deal of criticism from his colleagues in the House.
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However, it is still unclear what the education institutions are spending their funding on, which has resulted in a deadlock regarding the money generated by the abolition of student grants. This money will not become available for a little while longer, while the education institutions have expressed a wish to receive the money soon. Politicians have indicated that they will only grant this request if the universities are willing to provide greater transparency on their expenditures.
CDA was one of several parties that brought up the supposed ‘advance spending’, where universities and universities of applied sciences would spend €600 million over the course of three years, in anticipation of the additional millions they would be granted from the money saved due to the abolition of student grants. The Dutch universities claim they did spend the €600 million, but the Netherlands Court of Audit was unable to find evidence for this claim in the figures. CDA is willing to expedite the payment of the funds that will become available due to the abolition of student grants, on the condition that the education institutions actually spend the full amount of the money earmarked for advance spending.
A proposal that seems more likely to be accepted is a proposal by CDA to also expedite the so-called education vouchers. These are vouchers to be given to the first cohort of students to embark on a degree after the abolition of student grants, who will be able to use them towards a new degree five to ten years after completing their first degree. CDA feels that if these students are given permission to use the vouchers now, to pay for, say, a Master’s degree, they will receive some form of compensation for being unlucky when they first embarked on their degree.
Higher enrolment figures
A few other controversial issues were discussed, as well. In recent years, more and more universities have had to make budget cuts, because their enrolment figures exceeded the prognoses. The same thing appears to be the case this year. Will another so-called ‘efficiency cutback’ (i.e., a budget cut due to a perceived lack of efficiency) be introduced? The fact that enrolment numbers are so unpredictable is making it hard for universities to draw up proper budgets.
GroenLinks asked the Minister for Education to guarantee that higher enrolment numbers than expected will not result in more budget cuts in the future. Furthermore, GroenLinks wishes to undo the cuts to the lump sums allocated to schools and universities included in the most recent budget, and has submitted a proposal to effect this, in association with PvdA and SP.
“All sorts of studies show that there is no other higher education system in the world that works as efficiently and effectively as ours,” said Zihni Özdil, an MP for GroenLinks. “As regular people would put it: we’re already getting the best, while paying very little for it. The question is, at what cost?” He provided a summary of the situation: academic staff struggle with their very high workload, while students are getting overworked or burnt out. Özdil’s plans are not supported by the ruling parties for now, although the ruling parties did agree that the universities’ sudden need for budget cuts is very unfortunate.
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‘Study advance payment’
Another thing that is confusing people is the phrase studievoorschot (‘study advance payment’), the Dutch word used to describe the current student loan with a favourable interest rate. CDA’s Harry van der Molen, along with opposition party SP, called on the Minister to stop using this confusing phrase. It’s just a loan, they said, and students should be encouraged to borrow as little as possible. “Which starts with proper information and clear phrasing.”
Other figures were clear, but still resulted in discussions, e.g. in the debate on the increased interest rates on student loans. It looks like former students who are paying off their student loans will pay at least €10 per month more than the current crop of students. But does a tenner constitute a lot of money, or is it peanuts?
“It’s a fair bit of money,” said Özdil. After all, students pay off their debts over a 35-year period, meaning the difference will amount to at least €5,000 per student. But that is a poor argument, says D66’s Paul van Meenen. “I’ve heard those comparisons. People will say, did you know that the average person spends about four months of his life seated on the toilet? This is the same thing.” His point? If you add up very minor amounts of absolutely anything over the course of a lifetime, you’ll end up with a fair bit. However, the opposition parties were not swayed by his argument.
The debate will be continued on Thursday, when the Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, will speak.