The Spring Memorandum presented last Friday by Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra was quite exceptional. After years of surpluses, the government budget is suddenly 90 billion in the red – and that was just an ‘initial estimate’. The worst is yet to come, warns Hoekstra.
So far, this hasn’t had much of an impact on the education sector. While the Education budget also listed several ‘setbacks’, they have nothing to do with the coronavirus crisis. The Ministry expects an increase in the number of enrolments at universities of applied sciences, for example, which will add dozens of millions of euros to the government’s costs: 87 million euros in 2021 – running up to 133 million in 2024.
Among other things, this can be explained by an increased number of migrants, says the Cabinet. And more young people are starting on a higher professional education degree programme after taking a few gap years. On top of this, the institutions are registering a growing number of international students and ‘mature’ students.
Primary and secondary education and vocational education and training also deal with higher numbers of pupils and students. All in all, the Cabinet will be reserving 450 million euros to cover the costs of this extra intake – plus another 32 million to deal with the ongoing shortage of teaching staff.
Nevertheless, this is just short of what’s required. The Ministry of Education is still left with a 60–million-euro deficit that somehow needs to be covered from its own budget.
Which means the Cabinet probably isn’t too keen on an additional expense to the sum of 83 million euros. Because that’s how much it would cost to fulfil the House’s wish and give the students who have fallen between the cracks 2,000 euros in compensation.
It’s like this. After the cancellation of the base grant, the first four years of students studying under the new scheme (the ‘short-changed students’) were unable to take full advantage of the pledged investments in higher education. By way of compensation, the government promised them a study voucher worth just over 2,000 euros. They can use this voucher for extra education in the five to ten years following on their graduation. But who’s actually going to use it at that point in their lives? The recent graduates will be at the very start of their careers, or are tied up in nappies.
That’s why a House majority came up with the following plan: move this payment forward so students can use the 2,000 euros to cover the tuition fee for their master programme. Or, alternately, simply deduct that lump sum from their student debt.
But that will cost the government even more. Dangling a voucher will prove a lot cheaper than promising every new graduate a cool two thousand. After all, not everyone will be using up this budget: meaning the Ministry could count on a significant underrun.
Nevertheless, MPs remained adamant about the idea – no matter how much Education Minister Van Engelshoven balked. She eventually said that the Spring Memorandum would show whether there were any funds left for this plan. And now the required budget (83 million euros) obviously can’t be located – and is unlikely to materialise during the current coronavirus crisis. The Cabinet is expected to decide for good on the matter in May.
The Dutch National Student Association (ISO) wasn’t happy to hear the news. “This measure was very important – precisely because of the coronavirus crisis, because it would help the students who are hit the hardest,” writes ISO in its response.