This autumn, he sent a letter to the Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven. And when he was not satisfied with her reply he sent her a, second letter. “In my opinion, your department’s limited budget does not constitute a valid reason for the agency’s inability to help students and former students with urgent problems,” he wrote.
DUO’s problems may well become a bit of a headache for the Minister, because by now, nearly all Dutch political parties have got involved in the discussion , asking why the service provided to students is so subpar. The parties forming the current government are not happy with it, either.
“I’m sorry that students have to wait so long before being served,” the Minister wrote to the Lower House. However, apologies are all she has on offer. While she agrees that the customer service provided to students is subpar, she claims it is “quite the challenge in itself” to make sure the level of service does not actually deteriorate.
You see, DUO is a little strapped for cash. Van Engelshoven said last month that the executive agency had suffered some setbacks, in the form of difficulties managing and maintaining its ICT. These difficulties were partially due to a switch to a new student finance management system (which, incidentally, ended up being twice as expensive as budgeted).
According to DUO spokesperson Tea Jonkman, the new system works well, “but the other systems connected to it are older and they had to be made to work with the new system. So we ran into some issues no one had predicted.”
Moreover, DUO is to some extent a victim of its own success. In the new system, students who edit their information or arrangements can see the changes straight away, but that does not stop them from making a phone call, anyway. “We get a lot of calls asking us to confirm things,” says Jonkman. “They’ll say: ‘I edited such-and-such information. Can you see those changes?’ And we’ll say, ‘Yes, we can.’ Some people just prefer calling to reading, even when the information is presented to them in a very clear and easy-to-understand way.”
She hopes there will be fewer such phone calls in the future, once students have got used to the new system. “Of course we don’t want to keep our callers in a queue. We’d rather call people ourselves, to prevent all sorts of issues. We’d like to get some additional funding for that.”
However, that is not likely to happen any time soon, as the Minister has informed the Ombudsman. The Minister wrote in her reply to the Ombudsman’s second letter that she did not want to give off the impression that she thinks it is acceptable for callers to be kept in a queue, but that she was forced to make certain choices. “What with the financial resources I was given, I had to weigh what is desirable against what is feasible.”
Van Engelshoven is currently having the severity of the problems assessed. She will know more on the subject next spring and has promised both the Lower House and the Ombudsman that she will get back to them then.