Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66) has ‘extremely mixed feelings’ about the fall of the government. That was his initial reaction on Friday evening, before the emergency cabinet meeting had started.
Sometimes the migration policy affected Dijkgraaf’s portfolio too, when it related to Ukrainian students for instance. In mid-June, GroenLinks MP Lisa Westerveld asked in a debate why these war refugees should pay such high tuition fees in the Netherlands. Why can’t they follow a study programme for the normal tuition fees?
“I think Ms Westerveld’s idea is very compassionate”, said Dijkgraaf, struggling to find the right answer. But it turned out subsequently that he got no support for it within the cabinet. “We will include the generic measures in the wider discussions on migration. They are not yet complete.”
It was a disappointment for the former scientist. Everyone could see what he thought about it. If it were up to him, refugees would simply pay the low rate. The institutions themselves could do something for these refugee students, the Minister underlined. “And that’s what I would like to see. In fact, they have done it already. I consider that a really kind gesture. If they were to pursue that policy, I would applaud it wholeheartedly.”
Then he added: “In broader terms, it is important to show that the Netherlands gives a warm welcome to refugees and students from war zones. Once again, educational institutions are doing so with open arms. I just hope they will continue to do so next year as well.”
A warm welcome for refugees? It is no wonder that Minister Dijkgraaf has mixed feelings about the fall of the government because of the migration policy.
But the tuition fees are just a relatively small point; the institutions can cope with that. Dijkgraaf also had trouble with the migration issue in his policy for the internationalisation of higher education.
At the start of the last academic year in Maastricht – where the majority of the students come from abroad – Dijkgraaf made fun of the tradition, at the beginning of the academic year, of sounding the alarm in the press because of the internationalisation. He was probably thinking of the stories about freshers who had to live on campsites because of the housing shortage. But regardless of such incidents he wanted to reflect some more about internationalisation, “because there are clearly enormous benefits for the labour market and the quality of the education”.
But would his cabinet colleagues agree? It took longer than expected for Minister Dijkgraaf to send his plans for internationalisation to the House of Representatives. One of the reasons for the delay was a “broader discussion on migration” in the cabinet, he wrote to the House.
He had to navigate between his own preference for open, international higher education and the migration concerns of other parties. He finally sent his letter about internationalisation in April.
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For certain sectors he would prefer not to stem the flow: the Minister wants ‘customisation’ for studies such as ICT and engineering and for studies in the deficit sectors on the labour market. Most of the political parties will be able to support that.
But he believes the approach will vary from one region to another. Higher education institutions close to the German and Belgian border have, in his opinion, a ‘different position’ with respect to internationalisation. Some of the parties find that harder to swallow.
On that topic, Hatte van der Woude (VVD) said in a debate: “Teaching psychology in English to a class of Germans doesn’t sound very useful to us. That cannot happen.” Pieter Omtzigt referred to the psychology programme in Maastricht or Enschede: “It’s in English. Eighty percent of the students come from Germany, ninety percent of them go back there. That debate will doubtless be reignited now that the government has fallen.
The fall will have more consequences. Some of Dijkgraaf’s plans will be delayed. There is, for example, very little chance that the caretaker government will take a decision on the binding recommendation on continuation of studies, which Dijkgraaf would like to relax. After all, the VVD is foursquare opposed to it.
He had also intended overhauling higher education funding. That is possibly the most sensitive part of the extensive ‘foresight study’ that he is working on. He will probably have to leave the task to his successor.
But other things will simply go ahead. The basic student grant returns in September and hundreds of millions of euros for education and science have for the most part been settled, including the uses to which the money will be put.
The main question will be how long the caretaker government will continue to rule. The general election will probably be in November and then the negotiations over a new coalition agreement will start. Dijkgraaf could stay in his job for another 18 months.
And maybe D66 will again be part of the government and Dijkgraaf could carry on as minister. If he still wants to.