The biggest surprise during the debate on the national budget for education and research on Wednesday came from the governing coalition: they want students living away from home to receive an amount on top of their basic grant for three years (rather than one year). Minister Dijkgraaf promised to see what he could do.

On other issues, however, he barely budged at all. Extra compensation for students in the student loan system, which MP Habtamu de Hoop (PvdA) again advocated? There will be none. “I feel bound by the coalition agreement to that 1 billion”, he reiterated. “I appreciate that that is a hard message to hear.”


Neither will he prevent the rising interest rates on student debt, although some opposition parties tried to pick away at that viewpoint. Laurens Dassen (Volt) wanted to know whether students in the student loan system might be able to pay zero percent interest on part of their debt, namely for the part of the basic grant that they missed out on.

Dijkgraaf did not want to hear about it. Charging less interest will eventually erode student grants and loans, he argued, and some things are just the way they are, “Our whole country will be living a new economic reality, with inflation.”

Stephan van Baarle (DENK) found that last statement strange, saying that you should not relate such a basic provision as education to an ‘economic reality’. Peter Kwint (SP) was also surprised. He feels it is specifically politicians’ task to shape the economic reality.

Dijkgraaf’s response to the criticism was philosophical. “The extent to which we, as politicians, are or are not able to shape that economic reality is quite an existential question”, he said. “One to which I do not readily have an answer.” The high inflation is sometimes “more like a natural phenomenon than something we have created here”, he felt.

His position regarding interest rates for former students is supported by the governing coalition, so he will not encounter any problems in that respect. He shook off the criticism with his usual charm.

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That was not the case when he talked about internationalisation, i.e. the strong growth in the number of international students. Various parties, left and right of the political spectrum, are concerned about this. Some universities can no longer cope with the influx, nor is there enough accommodation for all those students. What will the Minister do?

He requested patience. In February, he will present a vision on internationalisation, followed by a ‘foresight study’ for higher education as a whole before the summer. He does not really want to discuss it until then.

Hatte van der Woude (VVD) wanted to know whether this meant there will not be a bill in February. The problems regarding the rising number of international students are not exactly new. The House of Representatives has been talking about this for years. Why does it have to take so long? She spoke of ‘great confusion and disappointment’.

Dijkgraaf seemed surprised. Of course no bill will be presented yet; it would take longer than just three months to write one, after all. Moreover, it remains to be seen exactly what the vision on internationalisation will be. He cannot even start until then. At the interruption microphone, Van der Woude was visibly shocked. “I’m going to spend the next few minutes thinking about how I’m going to deal with that”, she said.

Pieter Omtzigt, formerly of the CDA, also thought things were moving too slowly. “We already have universities where the majority of students are non-Dutch”, he said, referring to Maastricht. If the Minister takes until halfway through the coalition period to present a vision and only then starts working on a bill, “then I know it will be left to a next government again”, he said. “That’s what I’m most afraid of.”

MP Kwint from SP also had his reservations. According to him – and he was not alone in this – institutions should stop recruiting, also in the interests of the internationals themselves. “The fact that the mental well-being of international students is under pressure is also due to them having to camp out in tents on the sports field for practically the whole of September; that is not even a fictional example.”

Dijkgraaf still did not want to say anything about his plans yet. He only appeased critics by saying that a law from the previous government is still ‘in the freezer’: the Language and Accessibility Act (Wet Taal en Toegankelijkheid), which would give higher education possibilities to curb the influx. It has already been passed in the House of Representatives and is under consideration by the Senate. However, in previous interviews and debates, he has indicated that he does not approve of that act.

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Van der Woude wanted to ‘cheerfully’ encourage the Minister to nevertheless present a bill of his own on international student intake before the summer. Together with the CDA and others, she tabled a motion to that effect, which Minister Dijkgraaf dissuaded, referring to his upcoming plans. He promised concrete measures, such as administrative agreements and legislation. He is also looking at the language used in study programmes and the responsibility of the education inspectorate of the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO).

Others also submitted motions and amendments, on embedding Frisian in higher education and research, countering discrimination in internships and exploring alternatives to the current interest rate on study loans, for example. A motion against animal testing on monkeys was signed by all groups.

The Minister advised against certain motions if they would require additional money or legislative changes. He gave his blessing to others, which were roughly in line with his policy, ‘if I may interpret the motion this way…’.

For instance, he does not approve of a law enshrining Frisian in academic education (‘too strong a measure’). And interest on student loans? He absolutely does not want to spend any extra money on that. At most, he is prepared to set out the ‘policy options’, as stated in a motion from Volt.