It is a remarkable message from the president of the university of applied sciences (HBO in Dutch), which has locations in Breda, Roosendaal, Den Bosch and Tilburg. During the corona crisis, a lot of money was made available to limit the damage in the education sector.

Do you think those corona funds are unnecessary?

“Yes, and I strongly opposed the National Education Programme. Avans does not need any extra money. We have plenty of money; we even have too much. We are actually trying to slim down our reserves and are budgeting for ten to fifteen million euros less. The large reserves in the education sector are sometimes criticised, and to some extent that is justified too. But every time I want to spend money, I end up with all kinds of extra funding at the end of the year that I did not ask for. It doesn’t arrive until August or September, and then I am no longer able to spend it, which invariably means Avans ends up with a budget surplus again.”

Doesn’t the HBO university benefit from that extra money at all?

 “The only ones who will benefit are accountants and consultancy firms, because a lot of the money will get tied up there.”

But surely you can just spend it on education?

“It’s true that the HBO university is now making all sorts of wild plans aimed at allowing students to catch up on their studies quickly. This is driving them crazy and it’s not going to work. It would have been better to say to all students: You are allowed to study for an extra six months and we will pay for it. And then some of the students will appreciate that, but there are also enough students who would say: ‘No, I’m going to graduate and get a job. I’ve already finished in the meantime.’ What you could also have done: Give all students a voucher for, say, a thousand euros. Then they can take advantage of additional education within ten years if they want.”

Why hasn’t that happened?

“Politics is impatient. Everything happens in short cycles. The Dutch House of Representatives is prepared to spend 100 million euros on something out of sheer emotion, but the money has to be in the banks of the educational institutions within six months. Why? Avans is really not going to go bankrupt, things are going very well here. What am I supposed to do with that extra money? There are more than enough structural problems out there to do something about.”

So, what needs to be done from a structural point of view?

“You have to look at primary and secondary education in particular. If you see how we are dropping in all kinds of international student rankings when it comes to reading skills and mathematical skills… that really is frightening. Something has to be done about that. This is much more important than a few million extra euros for higher education.”

Does this criticism also apply to academic universities? They have been saying for years that they are short of money.

“Yes, they shouldn’t be complaining either. Of course, you can see that the pressure to publish in science has come at the expense of education. A few things have gone wrong. But at the same time, you have to ask a more fundamental question: What are the actual tasks of universities? They occasionally make an effort to do that. Then they say, for example: ‘We don’t want mass lectures anymore. We are not an education factory.’ They want to provide smaller-scale education and refer more young people to universities of applied sciences. But in practice, not much materialises from their good intentions.”

Why is that?

“I don’t know, but they could do more with the universities of applied sciences. We have a ‘binary system’ where these types of universities and academic universities are concerned, but that’s almost impossible to explain abroad. There, universities of applied sciences and academic universities are all called universities. A research university needs different funding than a university of applied sciences, but the distinction is not so rigid. Universities and universities of applied sciences could really work better together. Then all higher secondary school students would no longer have to go to university. You really need to look at what students actually need. “

“But sometimes it is difficult to talk about it. I once said to a university director: ‘At Avans, we don’t need an academy with a master’s programme if students can do their master at a university.’ That seemed like a reasonable start to a conversation. He looked at me in surprise: “Are there any master’s programmes at universities of applied sciences?’ He had no idea. It may be an exception, but this is what we have to deal with.”

Politics abolished the basic student grant in order to put extra money into higher education.

“That should never have happened. Students get less time to develop themselves and we saddle them with debt. That really is a problem. It now seems like a privilege that you are allowed to study, under conditions set by the state.”

But you are active within the CDA political party. That party once wanted to introduce a long-term study fine for slow students who spent a long time studying and who wanted to develop themselves at their own pace.

“My own party is also partly to blame for the cutbacks on student support. I would like to see the policy become a bit more generous. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say: ‘You can graduate within four years, but you still get one or two years of extra time at the taxpayer’s expense, in other words, a scholarship. And if you haven’t finished by then, you’ve got to pay for the rest of your studies yourself.’ But that is different from abolishing the basic student grant.”

For years, Avans has been high in the rankings of the Keuzegids (‘Choice Guide’) and Elsevier magazine. You shout it from the rooftops, even though your colleagues are occasionally skeptical about those rankings. Why is that?

“That’s right. In 2010, we were number one in the rankings for the first time ever. I had a full-page advert placed in all the regional newspapers in the places we are prevalent: ‘Yes, we are number one thanks to our students and staff!‘ And do you know why? The neighbours of our teachers see that ad and say across the garden fence: ‘Hey, you’re number one!’ People are proud to work at Avans.”

“We are a university of applied sciences that has merged with others, so it was important to create an Avans culture. In 2012, the art academy celebrated its 200th anniversary. We celebrated that all year long as ‘Avans 200’ with a fantastic closing party in the Brabanthallen. We spent a lot of money on it and 14,000 people came and thought: ‘Wow, is this Avans?’ Most people had no idea how big we really are.”

But does a celebration like that really contribute to education?

“In my opinion, 80 percent of the quality of education is related to the satisfaction and pride of the staff. The other 20 percent consists of professionalism, skills, experience and so on. And of course, your core quality has to be in order too, but that was already the case. I can thank my predecessors for that.”

So, what is that core quality?

“Just take all the facilities for one thing. If a teacher enters a classroom and cannot get the monitor to work, then two minutes later someone from the facilities department is there to fix it. No hassle with filling in a request form or anything like that, it has to be done straight away. Otherwise, you have a cranky teacher and that’s not good for teaching.”

What do you think politicians can do to improve the quality of higher education?

“Politics should primarily not interfere too much in higher education. Take those performance agreements as an example that universities of applied sciences had to make with the Ministry of Education back in 2012. They were no longer about quality but about figures: How many students graduate, how fast can they complete their studies, how high is the drop-out rate? Then you end up with perverse incentives.”

Basically, you are saying: please don’t check up on us, we can do our job properly by ourselves.

“I am not saying that. We do need some control. The accreditation by the NVAO is extremely valuable. In education, we are often too kind to each other. Sometimes you have to have a conversation, such as: ‘I see a 53% dropout rate in this programme, why is that happening? What can you do about it?’ That is important. If the minister calls me to task about something, I also look at the organisation: How are we doing things here? That is also key: Holding professionals accountable for the level of quality and for their actions.”

But surely you also focus on grades? Just take the binding study advice, which requires students to gain a certain number of credits.

“The BSA is also a subject of discussion for us. We are going to introduce ‘modular education.’ Students will be able to choose 25 percent of their curriculum freely, and another 25 percent will be interdisciplinary. In a system like that, you can’t really expel a student if they fail to complete certain credits. But then again, you do have to quantify standards. You cannot let students muddle along.”

What would be your advice to the next cabinet?

“Don’t be blinded by incidents, because there are always incidents. But ask the fundamental questions. Does our system still meet the needs of students? And I mean from primary school to higher education. The notion of emancipation is still very much alive in education, for example, among students with a non-Western background. And we now seem to be scuppering that idea too. The system needs to be recalibrated. That is far more important than simply throwing extra money around.”

Roelien-Ritsema-van-Eck

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