Who could possibly be against this idea? The actual situation in 2021 is grimmer. The social aspects of the loan system have been pushed into the background on account of the vast number of young people who have built up serious debt at such a young age. The research carried out by the University of Amsterdam’s Folia magazine, Erasmus Magazine, and other university media outlets last year into the so-called pre-investments and quality plans (i.e., how the money from the abolished basic student grant is spent) has made a few things crystal clear.
As to whether – and how – the quality of higher education has improved over the past six years is impossible to determine. On the other hand, we did conclude that students have not had a serious say in this as had been promised. What is obviously problematic is that accountability for the spending of the money and the supervision of it leave much to be desired.
Is that bad?
It is, especially when you consider that students have forfeited part of their income and are entitled to expect better education in return. Some politicians and administrators of educational institutions will argue that this depiction fails to take into account laws, practical constraints and unpredictable developments.
We would also like to add that our research has brought us into contact with a long list of people who are passionately fighting for better education for all. Also, we would like to point out that there is no evidence that large sums of money have fraudulently vanished into the wrong pockets.
But on that path of good intentions, dreams and ideals, scarcely a single passer-by could answer this straightforward question in full or in an understandable way: ‘Where exactly was that money spent and how did it fulfil the promise to improve the quality of education?’ It seems to us that the abolition of the basic student grant in 2014 was, in retrospect, a brutal cutback, which young people in particular have borne the brunt of.
With the help of editorial teams at universities of applied sciences and universities across the country, our research team examined the annual accounts of 25 institutions (13 universities and the 12 largest universities of applied sciences) from 2015 to 2019 to find out how they accounted for pre-investments and the use of the bursary millions.
We also carried out data research on developments in student and staff numbers and mapped out the financial position of institutions. Where possible, we examined their pre-investments and quality plans, as well as the subsequent reviews by the Netherlands Court of Audit (Algemene Rekenkamer) and the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO). In addition, we held a series of interviews and background discussions with the administrators, researchers, students and politicians involved.
Many universities and higher education institutions are fed up with constantly having to account to the government – and thus to the general public – for their spending via a complicated and regulated system. The rationale is that they can make their own decisions about their expenditures with a clear conscience as they see fit. We applaud that idea, but the fact that only a few are able to explain and justify their spending in detail to the general public gives us pause.
Several times we have also been asked why, in these troubled times and in the middle of a corona pandemic, anyone should be critical of spending a few hundred million euros. Well, it’s simple: it would have been the same even without corona. And again, hundreds of millions of euros of public money is a significant sum, and it was taken away from students. Nowadays, students end up spending 10 to 14 thousand euros more on their studies than before.
Stripped bare and unceremoniously dismantled
Over the coming weeks you can read about the results of our investigation here in a series of roughly one instalment per week. First of all, we will list the facts chronologically and reconstruct how the demise of the basic student grant – stripped to its bare bones and unceremoniously dismantled – transpired in 2015. Next, we will reveal how the implementation of the aforementioned pre-investments and quality plans is faring across the country.
When it comes to student participation, we also compare the promises and actual practice side by side. One of the experts we spoke to phrased it this way: “Just because someone says they had a good conversation doesn’t mean it actually went well. We engaged in a debate with experts about whether politicians could actually promise that students would be provided with a better quality of education in exchange for their basic student grant.”
Early on we called this research project (which is financially and morally supported by The Dutch Journalism Fund) ‘Behind the academic facts.’ We will leave it up to others to decide whether we have fully lived up to this slightly bombastic working title. What is patently clear is that there are large gaps between (political) promises and actual practice, and that this has huge consequences for a fairly large group of young people in the Netherlands.
We also see that as the editorial staff at universities and colleges, we are sticking our necks out with this investigation. We accept this as a given, because we believe it is our duty to report independently and critically from the world wherein we work, even if this means that you occasionally bite the hand that feeds you.
We will conclude this series of articles a few days before the planned Dutch parliamentary elections on 17 March. This is very good timing: the coming weeks will bring a new period crammed with promises, brilliant future visions and impressive ideals. Students, too, will be promised all sorts of things; the first parties have already called for the return of the basic student grant in one form or another.
The interesting question once again is whether all those promises will be honoured in actual practice.
This article marks the launch of a series of investigative reports co-sponsored by the Dutch Fund for Journalism and various editorial teams at colleges and universities in the Netherlands.