Mark Rutte will go down in history as the longest serving prime minister of the Netherlands, in office even longer than Ruud Lubbers or Willem Drees. His name will forever be associated with the coronavirus crisis, the childcare benefits scandal, damages caused by gas drilling in Groningen and the apology for slavery.
But right before he took office as prime minister in 2010, the world looked very different. What did the leader of the VVD regard as his biggest political blunder then? “Calling on students to occupy university buildings in 2005, when I was state secretary for education”, he revealed to journalists at NRC. “Which even led to an official report being filed against me.”
It was indeed a remarkable time. As state secretary for higher education (2004-2006), Rutte liked to stir things up. If students were unsatisfied with their programmes, then they should occupy a faculty for a couple of days, Rutte said on the TV news programme Netwerk. “There are very practical means available. You have to buy tape and find the box where the fuses are – make a list. I’m going to explain everything to you guys.” He said he’d be coming round for coffee.
Not long afterwards, students occupied the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam in protest against Rutte’s own plans. And no, he didn’t ever come round for coffee. The building was cleared and the protesters had to pay fines. That’s when student organisations filed an official report against Rutte for incitement, because, after all, he had called for a sit-in.
How did it get so far? As state secretary for higher education, Rutte was not especially afraid to make enemies. He wanted to see Begeisterung – enthusiasm – he said, and he wasn’t seeing enough of it. He tried everything to get administrators to make changes. For example, he launched a bureaucracy metre (in a drive to bring down overhead costs), and he campaigned for a ranking of good and bad educational institutions. “That will hit administrators where it hurts, in their egos”, he predicted.
But that was just the warm up. More notable were his plans to make substantial changes to higher education. He advocated stricter selection procedures for programmes, as well as variable tuition fees – after all, good programmes ought to be able to ask for a little more. Competition between higher education institutions was fine by him. “You can only sell an A-brand if it’s top quality.”
So when he announced he was going to step down as state secretary for higher education and become leader of the VVD, the activist students in the Dutch Student Union didn’t shed a tear. “Rutte turned out to be a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, former vice chair Stef Beek said at the time. “He presents himself as if he’s students’ best friend, while at the same time making space for market principles and sky-high tuition in higher education. When he steps down, I’ll send him a bunch of flowers. I’ll be glad to see his back.”
An even more fundamental change was his plan for ‘study entitlements’. The funding for higher education ought to go with the students, he believed. From then on, students would be given a kind of credit voucher that they could spend at the higher education institution of their choice. If students were dissatisfied with their degree programme, they could then ‘vote with their feet’ by choosing a different university. This would force programmes to up the quality of their offerings.
Moreover, it would force students to work fast: you could get an extra two years, but after that your study entitlements would expire. After which, you’d have to pay for your degree yourself. The latter idea was to return sometime later as the ‘long student fine’ for slow students. Neither of these proposals made it into law, and each time it was because of the fall of the government.
Basic student grant
Where he was successful was in abolishing the basic student grant as of September 2015. At that time he was no longer state secretary but prime minister. His coalition government of VVD and PvdA (Rutte II) cut a deal with the opposition parties D66 and GroenLinks. Instead of receiving a basic student grant, students would only be allowed to take out a student loan. However, the supplementary grant was increased and repayment terms were made more flexible.
This, too, failed to garner success. After eight years there’s been a complete about-face: as of September 2023, students will again receive the basic student grant, and those who missed out will receive a small compensation package. But this is most likely against Rutte’s own wishes because he has always defending getting rid of the basic student grant.
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Does that mean all these problems are Rutte’s fault? No, of course not, he couldn’t have done it alone. The surveillance, for example, was devised by PvdA minister Ronald Plasterk, and the basic student grant was terminated by PvdA minister Jet Bussenmaker. But it all fit perfectly within Rutte’s vision of higher education.
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So now what?
This week saw the fall of Rutte’s fourth coalition government. We still have to find out what it will mean for research and higher education. It was crystal clear that, under the leadership of minister Robbert Dijkgraaf, the wind was blowing from a different direction. As, for example, in his plan to lower the requirements for the binding recommendation on continuation of studies, intended to reduce student stress. This is exactly the type of issue that Rutte felt little affinity for.
Dijkgraaf also put his stamp on the distribution of hundreds of millions of euros in research funding: no bother with universities competing for research money, but grants that they can distribute themselves.
After years of neoliberal policies, in which Mark Rutte played a dominant role, Dijkgraaf was able to slightly change the course of the supertanker. Probably less than he had hoped. He had been working on a wide-ranging foresight study that would also have had repercussions on the funding of higher education.
Now any changes have to be left up to the next government, with or without Dijkgraaf. But who knows. Maybe the course of the next government will even be a bit more neoliberal.