As it stands, many degree programmes place strict demands on their first-year students. Those who fail to obtain enough credits are given a negative binding recommendation on the continuation of studies, which effectively forces them to abandon their study programme. But if GroenLinks gets its way, this may change.

The party wants the government to talk to higher education institutions and convince them to remove the ‘binding’ aspect of this recommendation. This would leave the decision on whether or not to continue up to the students themselves.

A pointless obstacle

GroenLinks argues that many students who are forced to break off their studies simply enrol in the same programme at another university, making the recommendation little more than a pointless obstacle to academic progress. The resulting delay benefits no one at all. The pressure associated with the measure also discourages students from doing voluntary work, or serving on a representative council or participation body.

Others believe that the binding nature of the recommendation actually protects students. They argue that students who underperform should be given clear advice at an early stage, otherwise they will keep fighting a losing battle.

The impact of the coronavirus crisis may well be the driving force behind intensifying this discussion on student performance. In the past year, most universities of applied sciences have done away with the binding recommendation, while some universities have wondered whether to follow suit. The agreements made with the Ministry of Education have turned out to be vague to say the least.

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Lowering the bar

Two years ago, Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven proposed lowering the bar for binding recommendations to 40 out of 60 credits, but she was forced to back down. Her coalition partners in the Christian Democrats and the liberal VVD scuppered her plans, with outspoken support from the opposition PVV: “The bar is so low already it has almost hit the ground.”

These same parties now opposed the GroenLinks motion, along with the orthodox Christian SGP, but this time they were one vote short. All other parties, including several independents, supported the motion, which was passed by a majority of 76 votes to 74.

The Dutch Student Union welcomes this development, describing it as an “absolute milestone.” Chairperson Lyle Muns points out that in recent years students have been saddled with rising levels of debt and a high study load. “The binding recommendation has been a millstone around their necks.”

Go their own way

It is now up to the Education Minister to inform the House how she plans to implement the motion, the first stage being talks with the institutions themselves. However, it is by no means certain that these discussions will lead to the abolition of the binding recommendation. Unless some kind of ban is imposed, the universities may yet continue to go their own way.