“No more new ‘Haagse’ ideas for now”, writes Minister Van Engelshoven in her long-awaited Strategic Agenda for Higher Education and Research, presented on Monday. She would rather ‘do what is needed to bring calm and stability’. She wrote this, she says, to put people’s minds at rest. “No one wants to wonder: what have they dreamed up in The Hague this time?”
The world of higher education is rather agitated at present, partly thanks to the Minister herself, who put a cat amongst the pigeons by transferring about €100 million of educational funding from general to technical universities. It almost caused a schism in the VSNU association of Dutch universities, and her relationship with these universities hit a low point.
She shrugs it off. “Government is about taking responsibility, not just making sure that everyone thinks you’re nice”, she reflects. She maintains that the intervention was badly needed. “Otherwise, youngsters who wanted to study technology would find the door closed. Nobody could have justified that to society.”
She would rather talk about her plans for the future. “We have extremely good tertiary education and research in the Netherlands”, she states. “It is accessible and high-quality. All well and good – but it’s reaching its limits. That’s why we have to strengthen the foundations of the system, so that it will remain viable into the future.”
Her Agenda is clear: the workloads of teachers and researchers are too high, and students are also suffering from stress. “Opening the valve a little reduces the excess pressure.”
Her guiding principle is also clear: less competition and more collaboration. Universities and colleges should not have to fight so hard to attract students: instead, they should be working together to ensure that students sign up to the right place.
So she wants to do something radical: make higher education institutional funding less dependent on student numbers. Lots of students, or only a few – soon it won’t make so much difference. Instead, these institutions will receive more base funding.
This could also help to solve the problems being faced by smaller programmes. “If society feels that certain courses should always be available, even if they attract few students, then they should also be given adequate funding. Small programmes should not have to fight every day for their survival.”
Our thoughts immediately turn to Dutch language and literature, courses currently beset by problems: falling student numbers, declining levels of research, and criticism from all quarters. Is this to save Dutch Studies?
Yes, she replies, she has it in mind. But it’s not just about Dutch Studies, she quickly adds. “There are other small, unique programmes that are also important, for instance in the modern languages.”
Base funding is nothing new; educational institutes already receive it. What Van Engelshoven wants to do is to give it more weight, while at the same time examining the funding differences that have evolved between universities. Some have always received more funding than others. “Nobody can explain it. We’re going to look at that again”, she says.
Her plan might well bring calm and stability, but critics will doubtless retort that this is not enough. The real problem, they will say, is inadequate funding. Not for nothing has the protest movement WOinActie demanded more than a billion euro extra.
In her Agenda, the Minister admits – perhaps for the first time with such candour – that the universities are stretched because research funding has failed to grow along with the number of students. But no more money will be made available for now.
“We know things are tight, but right now the money isn’t there”, says Van Engelshoven. “This Cabinet has made some heavy investments: an extra €400 million of structural funding for research, and money for research infrastructure… it’s a big step in the right direction, but in the long term, yes, it’s not enough.”
So what does this all mean for students? One thing we can be sure of: if the number of enrolled students becomes less important, schools will become more selective and work less assiduously to keep students on board. Will the Minister be safeguarding accessibility?
Van Engelshoven does not think that accessibility will be jeopardised: “That shows a lack of confidence.” She wants, in fact, to maintain accessibility, vital as it is to society as a whole. “The diversity we have now should also be visible in higher education. That also means that we should be disinclined towards both selection and maximum numbers.”
On the contrary, she thinks that education will be more accessible if universities and colleges need compete less for students. “It creates a space in which to share the student’s perspective: where would they be best placed? That’s when we can start thinking in terms of what students need. For instance, some of today’s students on academic courses have great practical aptitude and would be better off in higher vocational training.”
Higher vocational training is also expected to contract over the next few years, in response to gradually shrinking cohorts of school leavers. So it would be a good thing if more students chose to follow a practical training course rather than an academic degree.
Something else that is hoped to improve accessibility is the introduction of more flexible programmes, with which the higher education sector is now beginning to experiment. These programmes do not require that students attain 60 study points per year; study subjects can be chosen at will; and studies can be followed at different educational institutes at the same time.
In her Strategic Agenda, Van Engelshoven gives the example of a top athlete who would love to be able to study flexibly, but it could be a solution for many other students. “Some students are chronically ill, and study at a different tempo. Or they’re a caregiver. We should create space for that.”
One could be forgiven for thinking: state nursing care has been dismantled, higher studies have been made more expensive, and if this puts youngsters in difficulties, they can opt for flexible studies… is that really progress? “Anything you want can be put in a bad light. What matters is that students get an opportunity to follow their own path.”
The Agenda has very little to say about the role of the ‘negative binding recommendation’ (bindend studieadvies, BSA). At one time, the Minister wanted to lower BSA norms, as she felt that students were being dismissed too readily. Her plan collapsed in the House of Representatives.
In her view, the ‘discussion’ was nevertheless helpful, with institutes now giving more thought to the BSA. “How do we ensure that the BSA doesn’t just increase pressure, but strengthens the referral function?” She sees it as a good sign that institutes are willing to ‘experiment’ with the BSA, and the Minister is prepared to ‘make room’ for these experiments in the legislation and regulations.
A certain mistrust might lead one to ask: how much more room do institutes need? They can already set their own standards for first-year students, from 0 to 60 study points. Surely, ‘extra room’ could only mean that they could dismiss students in later study years? No, replies Van Engelshoven, institutes want to be able to give students the benefit of the doubt, so that they are dismissed less often.
Van Engelshoven consistently shows that she dislikes mistrust. She would rather spread calm, and she is certainly not trying to anticipate possible controversy. Her closing message: “We’re doing what needs to be done.”