The abolition of student grants in 2015 meant that the government would save hundreds of millions of euros each year. The government promised that this money would be used to ensure that students would receive better teaching. Tertiary education institutions were told to draw up so-called ‘Quality Plans’ outlining how they would use their share of the available funding to guarantee higher-quality degree programmes.
However, this turned out to be harder than foreseen. In the first round of proposal assessments, nearly half of all proposals were rejected by the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO). A year later, the coronavirus pandemic broke out, while several education institutions were still redrafting their proposals for re-assessment.
In order not to saddle the institutions with financial insecurity in these times of crisis, the Minister for Education decided a year ago to grant all universities and universities of applied sciences their share of the promised additional funding in 2021 – even those institutions whose Quality Plans had not yet been approved. The same thing had happened in 2019 and 2020, when the higher education institutions were still drafting their proposals.
The largest political party in the country, VVD, strongly opposed the Minister’s decision. The then education spokesperson, Dennis Wiersma, proposed a fine of sorts: those education institutions that had still not gotten their Quality Plans approved in 2021 would be required to repay some of the funding they had received. He tabled a motion to this end, in association with GroenLinks, one of the parties that had supported the new student loan system earlier.
However, the motion was not adopted by the House of Representatives, as the Minister and the vast majority of MPs felt that the higher education sector was having a rough enough time of it during the pandemic even without a fine.
It has now transpired that the Council of State, too, had some misgivings about the notion of allocating the promised funding in 2021 without any conditions attached. The Ministry had requested the Council in July 2020 to issue a recommendation on the subject. This recommendation was adopted by the Council on 12 August, but the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science did not share it with the Lower House at the time. ScienceGuide discovered that it was not published in the Government Gazette until this week.
as the publication of the recommendation delayed on purpose? According to a spokesperson for the Ministry, it was not. He said that recommendations on proposed administrative orders issued by the Council of State are never shared with the House of Representatives. They are not publicised until the administrative order has been adopted and announced.
He attributed the fact that the recommendation was published so late to human error. “We forgot to do so, amidst all the chaos and busyness surrounding the application for the implementation of this emergency measure during the pandemic. That’s the only reason we can come up with. We’re not denying that we should have published this recommendation sooner.”
Lost sight of purpose
The Council of State’s recommendation is sceptical about the Minister’s plans. In its report, the Council asks what kinds of incentives the education institutions would have to improve the quality of their degree programmes if they were to receive the funding unconditionally. Would this not cause them to lose sight of the purpose of the funding?
The Council also proved impervious to the argument that universities had ‘suddenly’ become less financially secure. After all, the resubmission-and-reassessment procedure would take a long time anyway, the recommendation stated. Institutions that had been told to resubmit their proposals for assessment would probably have encountered ‘the aforementioned financial insecurity in 2021’ anyway, even without the coronavirus pandemic.
The Minister for Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, held a different opinion, she wrote on 26 August in a reply that was not published at the time either. By awarding the additional funding anyway, the Ministry would allow those institutions that had been told to resubmit their proposals to ‘continue the programmes they have already embarked upon to improve the quality of higher education’. Moreover, she said, the institutions were incurring enough additional costs as it was, due to the pandemic.