In March, they were still running at full steam. And then the outbreak suddenly turned everything on its head, including the higher education sector. “We filled in every square on our videoconferencing bingo card – that’s for sure,” says Gillesse. “You definitely get to see a more personal side of these administrators,” says a smiling Rutten. “Even Minister Van Engelshoven will be checking: can everyone hear me?”
And there was enough to discuss over the past year. More than anything, the Dutch National Student Association and the Dutch Student Union wanted to get the dismal situation for today’s young people on the agenda: high student debt, an overheated housing market and a labour market that is increasingly reliant on temporary employees. And we haven’t even started about dwindling pension funds and climate change. “This toxic cocktail of different policies has been an issue for a number of years already,” says Rutten. “But the Covid crisis has put everything under a magnifying glass.”
They are both passionate advocates of abolishing the current loan system. But its rationale was that the universities and universities of applied sciences would use the hundreds of millions freed up by the cancellation of the base grant to improve their education programmes. If the next Cabinet were to reinstate the base grant, wouldn’t this money dry up again? “I don’t accept the idea that we automatically have to choose between the two options,” says Gillesse. “The claim that reintroducing the base grant equals cuts in the education budget simply isn’t true.”
“It’s a false dichotomy,” agrees Rutten. “Politicians are using it to play off students and educational institutions against each other. The higher education sector needs extra money – plain and simple. By now, even the Minister admits as much. But this doesn’t take away from the fact that students are just as much in need.”
The Ministry of Education will be offering the first four years of students who missed out on a base grant a ‘study voucher’ worth roughly 2,000 euros. They can use this voucher, issued five to ten years after their graduation, for further education. The House of Representatives has asked for this money to be paid out sooner, but for the time being to no avail.
“Personally, this subject gets my goat,” says Gillesse. “It reminds me of those gift tokens that you have stuffed away in a drawer somewhere that you always forget to use. What a pointless voucher. Fortunately, the House seems aware of this too. I sincerely hope that the Minister will be announcing on Prinsjesdag that the students who didn’t benefit from the switch to loans will be allowed to subtract this from their student debt.”
According to Gillesse, one positive outcome of the debate regarding the ‘quality funds’ is that representative bodies have been able to strengthen their position. Institutions will only be assigned extra money if students and staff members are first allowed to offer their two cents on how it should be spent. “Hopefully, they’ll be keeping this up.”
Over the past year, both presidents have worked hard to call attention to student welfare. Pressure on young people has increased to the point where it is starting to affect their mental health. At the behest of the House of Representatives, RIVM was supposed to take stock of how many students nationwide have run into the proverbial brick wall, but this inventory was postponed for a year due to the Covid crisis.
Rutten would prefer not to wait for the results. “By now, there are more than enough data that make it clear that some students aren’t doing too well. You could also say: this is such a serious problem that we need to do something about it – even if we don’t know exactly how big it is, down to the last decimal.”
It would already help if the institutions where more considerate of their students, according to the two. “We need to remove this constant pressure on students,” says Rutten. “Stop organising three exams for every credit, no deadlines during the Christmas holidays, or resits over the summer. Steps like this aren’t that hard to take.”
“You can only solve a problem like this by getting at the root,” says Gillesse. “It’s very good to read that in her Strategic Agenda, the Minister refers for the first time to student success rather than study success.”
Having to sit at home during a global crisis, with all these uncertainties about one’s future, doesn’t make things easier. Rutten: “We’ve heard that some institutions have tried to compensate for the lack of face-to-face education with more assignments and deadlines. This isn’t necessarily good news for the students – and that’s putting it lightly. We’re interested to see which effect this has had once the air has cleared.”
That’s why Gillesse is pleased that ISO has commissioned research into studying during the Covid crisis. Compared to two years ago, the number of students who have fallen behind in their studies has risen by as much as 54,000. “These figures are very alarming. That’s why we’ve called on the government to re-allow face-to-face education as soon as possible – also because we’re concerned about the quality of remote education.”
Their year as presidents has run its course; they’ve handed over their press telephones. “Occasionally, I catch myself thinking: Where is it? Does it have a full charge?” says a smiling Rutten, who plans to finish her Cultural Analysis research master programme at the University of Amsterdam after the summer. “It was an incredibly interesting experience – particularly in a crisis year like this. What I found particularly fascinating was to see how well-intentioned everyone is, but how difficult it is to translate these good intentions into concrete improvements for students.”
“It was an honour and a true pleasure,” says Gillesse. “And now I’m even more aware of how much I enjoy working in the public interest. It’s something I hope to keep up for the rest of my life.” With a brand-new Administrative Law degree in his pocket, Gillesse will be combing through vacancies soon. “But first, I have three weeks planned relaxing near the water with a nice book.”