In 2019, Rotterdam School of Management (RSM) cancelled its part-time Business Administration master programme in response to a critical report issued by the Dutch Inspectorate of Education, which had concluded that the programme did not satisfy the requirements set for a government-funded programme. Over the course of two years, the students had paid around 28,000 euros in excess of the maximum legal tuition fee (approximately 4,000 euros).

Thanks to the report, some of the students were able to recover a share of their tuition fee. Incidentally, RSM has never officially subscribed to the Inspectorate’s findings, but states it has refunded the amounts in question ‘out of goodwill’. However, students who enrolled before 2016 were excluded from this courtesy, since according to Erasmus University the limitation period for their objections had expired.

A total of 146 students responded by initiating proceedings. Last Thursday, the two sides argued their case before the civil court. Due to the current Covid measures, most of the alumni didn’t take a seat in the public gallery but rather listened in via Skype.

‘No alternative’

According to one of the lawyers speaking on behalf of the former students, the university had left his clients ‘out in the cold’. “In spite of the Inspectorate’s 2019 report, and in spite of the Minister of Education’s call on EUR to reimburse the former students’ costs.” The barrister argued that the higher tuition fee – used to pay for, among other things, a study trip to São Paulo, fancy snacks and greater flexibility – was in breach of the guidelines, since the programme ‘did not offer an alternative that was free of extra charge’. “This was also concluded by the Inspectorate, which subsequently called on the university to reimburse the students in question. EUR brushed this aside.”

A lawyer representing one of the other students argued that EUR actually presented the programme as privately funded. “Promotions for the programme regularly compared it to private school Nyenrode’s offer. That programme is not government-funded.” The fact that the faculty’s public and private operations bear the same name (RSM and RSM BV) only adds to the confusion, he added. In addition, the barrister disputed the university’s claim that RSM’s full-time Business Administration master programme – which was offered at the lower tuition fee, counted as a decent alternative for his clients: “This programme is unsuited, since it doesn’t offer evening courses that my clients could combine with their day jobs.”

Business class

EUR’s lawyer defended the university’s refusal to reimburse these students by arguing that the master programme ‘offered a very comprehensive study experience that could only be compared to reputable business schools.’ “It’s considerably more luxurious than one could expect on the basis of the legal tuition fee,” said the barrister. He compared the difference between a normal degree programme and this part-time master’s to the difference between ‘a bus and a taxi’. “While they result in the same diploma and final attainment levels, the journey itself is very different – in terms of route, service and flexibility.” Later in the proceeding, he used another transport metaphor to define the programme’s unique offer, comparing it to a ‘business class experience’: “An 8-day trip to São Paulo, snacks during lectures, a high level of flexibility.”

Quite indignant

For the former students listening in online, the lawyer’s references to the provided luxury caused some vexation. One of the members of their legal team, who stood in close contact with the plaintiffs via WhatsApp, remarked that his clients felt ‘quite indignant’: “You refer to it as ‘business class’. But this remains to be seen. Because how can it otherwise be explained that a comparable degree programme is still offered today for the legal tuition fee, involving largely the same lecturers and the same curriculum? And during lectures, if the catering table happened to include Nespresso capsules, they’d be cleared away, since they weren’t intended for my clients. And then a pot of coffee arrived. Would you call that ‘business class’?” The resentment felt by some became tangible when one member of the online audience blurted in response to the EUR barrister’s argument: ‘Je lult uit je nek, man! [That’s complete bullshit, man!]’ This comment via Skype probably couldn’t be heard in court though.

The court will issue its ruling in six weeks or so.