Last week, Dijkgraaf gave the annual Kohnstamm Lecture about society, research and education. The subjects he talked about were things most of us were already familiar with. For example, he wants vocational education to be held in higher regard and is doing what he can to ensure more room for manoeuvre in education and research.
As a proper politician, he was also keen to capitalise a number of successes, such as the reintroduction of the student grant, the new investments in education and research and the arrival of a ‘smarter’ (less packed) academic year. His aim in this regard is to reduce pressure on young people to some extent.
'Sometimes, it scares me'
He also accepted questions from the audience afterwards. One student asked whether he thought that students were still hopeful about the future. After saying a few words about optimism and progress, his frustration and irritation began to show. “Sometimes, it scares me how negative students are when I speak with them.”
He said he understands their concerns about debt, the housing market and flexible contracts, but that the labour market has never been so good and that childcare is pretty much free. And some things, such as stress, are prevalent throughout society. “It’s not just financial.”
The student objected that increased interest on student debt is not exactly helping. Dijkgraaf had little time for this. It’s always students in higher education complaining about that, he sneered. Anyone with savings or a mortgage knows that interest rates are rising.
“I feel your passion, I do, but it’s always the highly educated people who want us to compensate them for this or that”, said Dijkgraaf. He drew the student’s attention to the other half of society, who have fewer opportunities and lower income. “I understand people who say: we want an affordable home. But that’s something everyone wants. You’re not alone in that. It goes for your entire generation, irrespective of level of education. And we can’t fix that overnight.”
“To be frank, it really gets to me that your generation is so negative about the future”, the Minister continued. He gave an example. The government has earmarked an extra 500 million euros to boost students’ spending power. Equivalent to an extra 165 euros per month, this amount will be added to the basic grant for students living away from home. “I haven’t had much in the way of a response to that”, he explained. “We’ve given 500 million euros to the best educated section of society, and the official response I get from the student organisations is that it’s laughable. There comes a point when it becomes hard to justify that to the rest of society.”
The student did not feel the Minister’s answer applied to her situation. She is 19 and is not in debt, she said, and she is happy with the extra money. Instead, she says, it’s the ‘unlucky generation’ of students before her that are angry.
That description was like a red rag to a bull. “Sorry, but what exactly makes them unlucky?”, asked Dijkgraaf. Well, the fact that they are in a lot of debt and did not get a basic student grant, was the response.
The Minister seemed to think it was all a load of nonsense. He says some people are in debt to the tune of 80,000 euros, and yet the basic student grant that they have missed out on would not come to more than 15,000. That would have brought their debt down to 65,0000 euros.
“This generation is facing the best labour market we’ve ever had”, he claimed. “Jobs are literally there for the taking.” People currently in their thirties missed out on cheap childcare; people in their forties and fifties are facing pension reform. Why not call them unlucky generations as well? In any case, how do you even know what it’s going to be like for future students? “Why are they the lucky generation?”
Unlucky generation is a misnomer, he argued. “I get the way it’s being framed, but honestly, I don’t think that’s the right adjective.”