She has now made a routine out of it. Click on a meeting, then comes the sound, the camera and there she is: the minister in her office. At a proper distance behind her, at least a-metre-and-a half away, her spokesperson waves to the camera.

This is how countless teachers and students do things every day. By necessity. The Netherlands has landed in a crisis of an unprecedented scale, with an economy that is in turmoil and an educational system that needs to reinvent itself.

Has this crisis changed her outlook on higher education? “It is difficult to say if you will look at things any differently,” says Ingrid van Engelshoven. “Reality is just so completely different now.”

It has, above all, strengthened her convictions, she notes. “Education is supposed to lead students successfully towards a diploma, but it’s really not so bad if they take a bit more time for that. That is why we are now talking about the success of students rather than academic success. In these times, you can see that the need for that is definitely on the rise.”

Torpedoed student life

Or take the welfare of students, for instance. She has already been working on that for a long time, she adds. “But there are very different issues now than there were prior to March.” At first, it was all about stress and credits, now it’s about a torpedoed student life and an uncertain future.

Don’t forget where we are coming from, she says. “Before the corona crisis, unemployment was historically low: 2.9%. Those who studied entered the labour market with incredibly good prospects for finding work. That has changed dramatically across a number of sectors. That perspective looks quite different right now, and that colours your life when you are young. I can imagine that it is causing a lot of insecurity.”

Did we hear her change her mind about the basic student grant and student debts? It may well be the case, given that her own party has made a proposal to reintroduce a kind of basic study grant, in part to provide students with more security.

But she does not want to hear anything about that yet. “This discussion about the student loan scheme is one for the election campaigns and for the formation stage of the new cabinet. But I have to say that you are slowly but surely starting to see some bizarre proposals being floated about, such as giving €10,000 to all 18-year-olds, as proposed by GroenLinks (the Green-Left party, ed.). That’s pretty crazy, right? You will end up with unemployed parents who are deeply in debt and will have to explain to them that you need that €10,000 for your own future. I don’t know if this has been thought through.”

No matter what you do...

The next Dutch cabinet will have to decide how to proceed. “But I would like to say one thing: No matter what you do with the student loan scheme, students were promised better education at the time it was introduced. So, keep your hands off the money allocated to that commitment to quality. We wanted to invest in higher education, and that urgency is by no means less pressing.”

But does she still not see any problems with the student loan scheme? Yes, definitely, but especially in the transition from vocational education (MBO) to higher professional education (HBO), she says. Fewer and fewer MBO students are taking the plunge into higher education. In general, the accessibility of higher education is good, the Minister states in a letter to the Dutch House of Representatives, except that the student loan scheme creates a threshold for this particular group. “Then you could do something about that.”

And by that, she does not mean giving all MBO students a basic student grant when they go into higher education. But a little extra encouragement would do no harm. That is why she wants to reduce the risks – just for MBO students! For years, young people have been able to try their hand at studying for a few months without too much risk. As long as they quit before February 1, they do not have to pay back their supplementary grant or OV public transport card. As far as she is concerned, MBO students will from now on be given the opportunity to take their time to complete their first year of higher education (HBO). “That way, we can fix things in a very targeted way. “

The costs involved in this are manageable – and that is something that can still be arranged by the current Dutch Cabinet. The wonderful and frustrating aspect of Dutch politics is that you always have to make compromises. As the elections draw nearer, the balancing act between ‘minister’ and ‘party politician’ becomes increasingly more palpable. “We have already reached agreements on this within the cabinet”, Van Engelshoven smiles.

Campaign

She should brace herself for what is coming. Especially during the campaign period, political opponents know how to easily score points. Why is D66 suddenly saying that things should be completely different in higher education, when the party itself provided the Minister of Education? Was Van Engelshoven unable to take over the reins then?

Of course, higher education would have looked different if D66 had been at the helm on its own, she replies. “Everyone can understand that, too. But changing a whole system simply takes time and we have taken some firm steps in that direction.”

For instance, she declares that this cabinet has said farewell to ‘rendementsdenken,’ (a way of thinking characterised by concern with maximising profits and efficiency, ed.). “We have really turned a corner. It is no longer the intention to put students through the system as quickly as possible. We would like to spend less time ‘pointing the finger’ and more time looking at the quality of education.”

Van Engelshoven op de campus_foto’s door Aysha (20)
Education minister Van Engelshoven speaking to students during a visit at Erasmus University Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

Go all out

She is also very keen that the next cabinet spends more money on higher education, speaking as a D66 politician. “We are currently having a study carried out on exactly how much money higher education needs to do its work properly. I want to do everything in my power to lay the foundations for more stable funding for universities and colleges of higher education.”

She means being less dependent on student numbers. With a stable source of funding, educational institutions could do something about the workload of lecturers (‘it really is too much’) and smaller study programmes can gain a firm foothold (‘we think that this is important’). Educational institutions in regions that are in decline, where there will be fewer and fewer students, will also no longer need to worry about their survival.

Why does this have to be done at the last minute? She would have preferred to do it sooner, but something this huge simply cannot be done in four years, she says. She can all but hope that the next government will continue along these lines.

Back to the accessibility of higher education. Time and again, certain groups of students turn out to be at a disadvantage when it comes to higher education. Students of non-Western origin, students who have a disability, students who do not have highly educated parents… If, for example, a study limits enrolment and makes a selection of students, these groups are constantly at a disadvantage.

That’s right, says the minister, and that is also one of the things that she wants to address. Educational programmes should select more cautiously (“You have to look at this very carefully: Is there a bias in this?”) and soon they will be able to draw lots again if they want to.

The lottery draw has thus made a comeback. But why leave this to the study courses, if she is so concerned about this aspect in the first place? Why does the Minister not champion a national lottery draw for major courses such as medicine?

Have the courage to say 'no'

“Because you tend to get on quite a high horse when you say, as a minister, that you know what is right. That would misrepresent the diversity in the country. Of course, politics sometimes must make a national decision, but you also have to have the courage to say ‘no’ to that. There may be very good grounds for selecting students, but we do see that study programmes sometimes struggle with this and that some students are put off. That is why we are making it possible to draw lots.

You don’t have to discuss everything with everyone, the Minister stresses, “but you do have to ensure that you have public support.” In her view, that is the key, even in a crisis.

Take those face masks that students and staff should or should not have to wear in higher education. “I have discussed this with the educational institutions, students and trade unions. The trade unions were in favour of a national obligation to wear face masks, but students and educational institutions weren’t. We then said: We will leave it up to the institutions to decide for themselves.”

It provoked a great deal of criticism in the Dutch House of Representatives. “And of course, it is not ideal if a university of applied sciences and a university in the same city adopt different policies. We are now also seeing a shift in public opinion. That’s why I said to the House of Representatives: I’ll take it to the cabinet. So yes, there is a very good chance that there will still be a national advisory to wear face masks in higher education, but I suspect, most institutions will already have agreed to that by then.”

Flex jobs, expensive housing

Nevertheless, face masks are basically a minor issue. Van Engelshoven is well aware that they will not ease students’ considerable feelings of insecurity. Students have to deal with expensive housing, high levels of student debt and limited certainties within the labour market, all of which exacerbates the crisis. No wonder they will sometimes turn their attention to the minister. “Students who are now running behind with their graduation are compensated for this. If the crisis lasts any longer – and it does look that way – then we will take another look at it.” And the government has also earmarked almost €400 million to tackle educational disadvantages (in primary and secondary education and vocational education).

Yet some of that uncertainty is, in her opinion, difficult to resolve. The future is uncertain. Far too many people are vulnerable in flex jobs and the government will in fact have to do something about the housing market.

Do people expect too much? “No, but you also have got to be honest. Politics cannot solve all problems. Studying, whether at a vocational college or at a higher education level, is still the best investment you can make. If the labour market has become insecure, then talk about it at your study course. It might be wise for some students to educate themselves slightly differently. Just think about that. For example, if you are now taking a course in the events sector, will there be a realistic chance of getting a job once you graduate? Are there perhaps related sectors where you can put your skills to good use?”

If she is thinking along those lines, what would the Minister (who also has Culture in her portfolio) say to arts and culture students? “There is always an extraordinary need for culture. It is oxygen for society. The arts programmes already admit a limited number of students. However, it’s wise for everyone to ask: Do I still see myself earning a living from this?”

Van Engelshoven op de campus_foto’s door Aysha (22)
Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

Enormous risk

And will the crisis increase inequalities in opportunities? “Yes, we have to be very honest about that: That risk is enormous. We know that people from non-Western backgrounds have a harder time in a tight labour market. Also, consider women and low-skilled people in temporary jobs also have a tougher time.”

To mitigate this inequality in higher education, she has arranged with the educational institutions that they are to pay careful attention to their first-year students, with special attention for vulnerable students. “For them, it might be important that they still come to college or university to study in peace and quiet with a proper internet connection. We have always given them this space because we saw how important it was.”

As she has at times witnessed how online education works. “Sometimes you see brothers and sisters running around on the screen. I’ve also seen a lot of cats, by the way. Studying at home is not always ideal.”

No wonder students recently demonstrated on the Museumplein in support of more in-person learning. They were supposed to encourage institutions to find more locations, weren’t they? There are plenty of empty theatres and event halls.

“It’s likely that the possibilities are not exhausted yet,” she concedes. “But the institutes are also working hard on this. It raises all sorts of questions. How do you deal with the cutbacks in public transport? How do you adjust the timetable to accommodate that? Someone sent me a photo of a tent where students can take exams, so it doesn’t have to be online. In Nijmegen, for example, they use the municipal theatre. While in Vlissingen, they use a large sports hall… I do encourage this, but it has to be done on a local basis.”

And on the other hand: Some students with a disability are flourishing these days, because they can follow courses at home much more often. “Take people who are bothered by environmental noise. They can now stay at home in peace and quiet thanks to online education.”

This is definitely edifying, she acknowledges. “The crisis teaches us that you have to take a very close look at who is actually vulnerable and who just needs a little more help. There are major differences, after all.”

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