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What the university’s doing with your abolished student grant

The members of the University Council regularly meet to discuss subjects that may not…

It is a sight never beheld before in the Netherlands: the boards of universities being forced to draw up plans for the improvement of their degree programmes in association with their participatory councils. It’s quite the change from the regular top-down decision-making process, in which directors propose plans and councils are given an opportunity to issue an opinion on those plans. If the universities fail to properly consult their councils (see box), they will miss out on a sizeable chunk of money.

Hard time accepting council power

In other words, the new approach is taking some getting used to, both for directors and for the members of councils. The Dutch National Students’ Association (ISO) concluded last December that several higher education institutions were having difficulty playing by the new rules. Universities of applied sciences in particular appear to be having a hard time accepting the councils’ newly granted power. The Dutch Student Union (LSVb) has confirmed this. The Union says that universities’ councils are more professional than those of universities of applied sciences’, and more able to oppose the Executive Boards’ plans.

However, the new approach is taking some getting used to for NVAO, the organisation that is overseeing the whole process, as well. NVAO is acting in accordance with a protocol featuring three assessment criteria. The first criterion concerns the contents of the proposals: the higher education institutions must demonstrate that their proposals will actually contribute to improved degree programmes. The second criterion concerns feasibility: are the education institutions likely to make the proposals work?

Millions of euros

Enormous interests are at stake with regard to the available funds. Depending on their student numbers, the major higher education institutions may each end up receiving between 20 and 30 million euros annually, on top of their regular government grants. But in order to get these additional funds, the universities and universities of applied sciences must honour their commitments. These commitments were entered into by the Ministry of Education, the umbrella organisations for universities and universities of applied sciences and the national student unions, ISO and LSVb. They stipulate that the funds must genuinely be allocated to improved teaching, and that councils are to play a crucial role in this process.

The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) has a three-phase assessment procedure. We are currently in Phase 1. By the end of this year, all applicant institutions must be found to have a solid plan in place for the allocations of the funds. 2022 will see a progress review, and 2024 will see a review of the way in which the plans were realised.

Phase 1 is the most sensitive one of the lot, because any university or university of applied sciences whose proposal is found wanting will miss out on its share of the funds. All higher education institutions will receive some initial funds (the 2019 and 2020 batches), but higher education institutions will lose their right to the increasingly generous 2020-2024 batches if NVAO feels that they have failed to meet the requirements. If the Minister for Education agrees, and if an institution’s plans are still found wanting a year later, the institution in question will not receive its share of the funds. Instead, its share will be divided across the other higher education institutions. No one believes the universities will let it come to that, but anyway, it is obvious that the higher education institutions are under great pressure to present solid proposals.


Universities are most likely to struggle with the third criterion, which stipulates that ‘internal stakeholders’ must be involved in the process ‘to a sufficient degree’, and that the proposed budget allocation must be ‘widely supported’. The notes explain that this mostly refers to the education institutions’ councils.

The universities’ executive boards have been warned. “We have urged them not to defer the consultation of their councils until the final stages of the process. The whole process must be interactive right from the start,” says NVAO President Anne Flierman. “It is vital that stakeholders have a say, and we know that politicians focus on that, too. Our panel members are obviously well aware of this.”

But when can councils be said to be involved to a sufficient degree? And what exactly constitutes a ‘widely supported’ proposal? Flierman refuses to provide any answers to these questions. “That is for our panels to decide. We are looking for sensible people to do that, and we will train these people, and we also have a few NVAO employees on hand who will guide the panels. Because obviously, the decision-making process must be consistent. You can’t use considerably different criteria for Education Institution A than for Education Institution B.”

So how are we going to know if savvy directors didn’t walk all over the councils to get them to approve their plans? Because they need the boards’ consent – either a unit’s council’s consent, or a faculty’s council’s consent, or the university council’s consent. Some boards have the right to approve or veto plans, whereas others only have the right to make recommendations. The university council decides who gets which powers. “If a unit’s council or a faculty’s council has the right to approve or veto plans, like the university council, our panels will attend meetings of all those units’ councils, and talk to them,” says Flierman. “Then we’ll hear what the process was like.”

Hijacking the process

Nevertheless, Flierman is forced to admit that a dilemma will come into play here: must all faculty councils consent to their faculties’ particular plan before the university as a whole can be given the green light? If so, one single board on the fringe of a university might hijack the entire process. “Our panels will have to issue a sensible recommendation on that,” says Flierman. “Perhaps they will say: ‘These people have such an unreasonable attitude that we won’t take their objections into account.’”

There is another dilemma, as well – one which has a political dimension, to the point where MPs have asked questions about it in the Lower House. The money that was ‘saved’ due to the abolition of student grants was technically students’ money. Does this mean that students should have the final say in what is to be done with the money? The NVAO Protocol mentions ‘councils’ and specifically refers to two parties: lecturers and students. At the University of Amsterdam, the Additional Investments Agreements were approved by a council made up of both students and staff. The majority of the student members opposed the agreements, but they were overruled. UvA’s Executive Board rightfully claims that all the requirements were met when the agreements were passed, in that the plans were approved by the university council. But is that really in accordance with the spirit of the agreements concluded between the Minister and higher education institutions?

“I know this is something that is being discussed, but I’m not going to get involved in the discussion right now,” says Flierman. “We’re facing other dilemmas, as well. What to do if a faculty council approves a plan but the central council rejects them? Or the other way around? I await the recommendations issued by our panels.”