While the cabinet is digging deep into the coffers to limit the consequences of the coronavirus crisis, the Ministry of Finance published sixteen reports last month with all kinds of cutback options – also within higher education.
Options mentioned include a cutback of 1.9 billion euros per year on the total budget for higher education and not issuing student grant advance funds (590 million euro). No longer funding master programmes is another option mentioned: this would yield a structural 970 million euro.
Administrators and politicians were unable to hide their aversion to the plans. SP Member of Parliament Frank Futselaar broke out in a ‘cold sweat’, he wrote on Twitter. “I hope that no party (or Minister) is so stupid as to implement this.”
Hogeschool Rotterdam Chair Ron Bormans also rejected the idea completely. “If this becomes reality, we’ll block it.”
That won’t be necessary for now: the reports are in fact nothing more than a theoretical exercise. At the House of Representative’s request, the Ministry of Finance outlines a potential list of cutbacks for all ministries every few years. Whether the options are desirable or not is deliberately not mentioned.
Moreover, civil servants have also offered suggestions as to how ministries could actually spend more money. For instance, the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science could improve support for students from migrant backgrounds in their search for jobs/internships or could increase structural investment in adult education.
In the Erasmus TV talk show on Thursday morning, Minister Van Engelshoven stated that all the commotion was based on a ‘huge misunderstanding’. “We’re not going to do this now.”
She responded to a question from a concerned lecturer: we have been working tremendously hard for weeks now giving online education, and you’re announcing cutbacks of billions?
But according to Van Engelshoven, it concerns a purely ‘theoretical exercise’. The reports were completed at the end of February, but she feels they were published at an unfortunate time: in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. “Similar plans were even drawn up for cutbacks in healthcare”, she explained. “And nobody could imagine doing that right now.”