The government should not have fallen, says outgoing minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66). “I still really regret what has happened.” He is now no longer able to initiate new policy. That is up to the parties who come to power after the elections.

But his long-awaited report, in which researchers explore the uncertain future of secondary vocational education (mbo), higher education and scientific research in the Netherlands, is about to be published. They set out three possible options, centred around the labour market, societal challenges and individual freedom.

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Foresight study outlines complex landscape of political choices

Tomorrow’s education system could be better aligned with the labour market, social…

Wrong message

“The fall of the government is a failure”, says Dijkgraaf in his room in the Hoftoren building in The Hague. “Everywhere in Dutch society, including in education, we are calling on people to work together to resolve the problems they face. It’s all part of our tradition of reaching a compromise and working well together. And then, as a government, you say: it’s not working. For me, that’s the wrong message to give.”

The government collapsed over the issue of migration and that also affects his own field, higher education. He was able to prepare a bill to control the influx of international students – it’s already online, anyone can respond to it – but he was not able to make a decision over the tuition fees for refugee students.

So, you could see Dijkgraaf biting his tongue from time to time because he couldn’t say what he wanted. The migration issue seemed to be a difficult topic for him. “That’s true”, he acknowledges. “You can see the broader migration debate reflected in education on a smaller – but no less complex – scale, when it comes to international students, refugee students and Ukrainian refugees, for example. It’s always a bit of a balancing act.”

There is pressure on the universities due to the large influx of students, there is an issue with housing but, at the same time, in his view, international students add a huge amount of value. “And, for some students, the humanitarian aspects are also important: in other words, you want the Netherlands to be a safe haven for people who are having a tough time.”


But today, we are talking primarily about the exploratory report on the future of secondary vocational education, higher education and science in the Netherlands, which the Minister is submitting to the Lower House. What role does he anticipate this will this play over the coming period? He admits that things have not gone as he had wanted.

Dijkgraaf: “This was meant to have been the first stage of the rocket, in which we gathered together a wealth of ideas from the field. Clearly, these shouldn’t be my ideas, or the ideas of the department, or of the coalition. It was important for everybody in the field to be able to have their say and for independent researchers to then look for common features in all of these views. In other words, this report doesn’t say, do this or do that. The second stage of the rocket is making choices.”

Clearly, that is not something he can do, as he writes in a letter to the Lower House. He basically summarises the themes that seem to him to be urgent and what, in essence, the choices are. Subsequently, there will be discussions around changes in funding and other possible interventions, which will make things a little more concrete.

Student freedom

The biggest dilemma seems to be: how do you balance freedom of choice for students with the needs of society as a whole? “Education is a bit like a triple word in Scrabble”, says Dijkgraaf, “it’s good for the economy, it’s good for society and it’s good for the individual.”

But sometimes these three aspects are at odds with each other. When you actually need a lot of teachers, nurses and engineers, how do you get students to choose those disciplines? Dijkgraaf: “It’s important to realise that there will soon be more jobs than people. It is likely that we are moving towards an era of structural labour market shortages. At that point the question will be: must we still give young people the opportunity to choose what they want to do? Or do we have to channel that freedom of choice?”

Is that dilemma really a new one? There have been restrictions on the intake for degree programmes such as medicine for a long time now. There is a difference here, says Dijkgraaf. “Medicine is a popular but expensive degree programme, so we limit the intake according to the number of doctors that we need. But we don’t say: we are limiting the number of students who can study medicine to ensure that more people study physics, for example.”

If you want to do that, you would have to put a limit on the number of students studying for degrees outside of the shortage sectors. But Dijkgraaf doesn’t see that happening very quickly in higher education. “Generally speaking, in my view, this discussion is more relevant to secondary vocational education.” It is mainly secondary vocational students who you might have to discourage from making choices that would give them few opportunities on the labour market, he says. They are more vulnerable than students with a degree from a university of applied sciences or a research university.

One in seven students

But the research universities too appear to want to restrict students’ freedom of choice. Recently, a former rector magnificus estimated that around 15 per cent of students at research universities would be better off at a university of applied sciences. The research universities are calling for more stable funding, so they don’t have to admit so many students.

In that case, they would have to select students, but Dijkgraaf isn’t keen to talk about that either. In his view, the most important thing is to enable students to find the place where they belong. “You can also create more flexible learning pathways, so students can switch a bit more easily. That way, if you find one type of education isn’t for you, you can easily transfer to a different one.”

You have to be careful of major changes, however, warns Dijkgraaf, because the Dutch higher education system is currently highly accessible and high in quality and is aligned with the labour market. “Some people speak of a ‘trilemma’, as if these three things don’t go well together, but they can do. One of the great things about our education system is that, in principle, with the right secondary school diploma, you can access secondary vocational education (mbo), higher vocational education (hbo) or academic education (wo).”

Broad spectrum

And then Dijkgraaf naturally touches on one of his favourite topics, the ‘broad spectrum’ of education. Secondary vocational education (mbo), higher vocational education (hbo) and academic education (wo) must be able to co-exist alongside each other, offering a broad spectrum of opportunities. All too often, people think that there is a lower tier and a higher tier. We have to get away from that idea, says Dijkgraaf at every opportunity.

But is that really realistic? As long as doctors earn more than nurses, you can’t really blame parents for wanting their children to study for a pre-university (vwo) diploma rather than a senior general secondary education (havo) diploma, can you?

Dijkgraaf: “Ultimately, the salaries are not the same, that’s true. But that’s the case within academic education, too. A banker or dentist earns more than a junior lecturer. So, there are big differences. But there are also secondary vocational education (mbo) degrees whose graduates earn more than some graduate academics. The most important thing is that students find their vocation and achieve to the best of their abilities. And they must not feel that that vocation is seen as a failure in some way.”

Revamping of higher vocational education

Universities of applied sciences expect to attract fewer students, while research universities are overfull. Higher vocational education (hbo) wants to be seen as a good option for vwo students. Wouldn’t it be a good idea, therefore, to open a new kind of university, somewhere between a research university and a university of applied sciences?

“I’m not going to say what I think at this point”, says Dijkgraaf, referring to his outgoing status, “but these sorts of options are proposed in the exploratory report.” At the same time, he emphasises that that same report also highlights the huge diversity within higher vocational education (hbo) and academic education (wo). These sorts of options could also be developed within existing universities of applied sciences and research universities, and secondary vocational education could also be developed further to provide scope for applied research.

The current government is actually already moving in this direction, he says. “We have set aside hundreds of millions of euros a year for applied research in higher vocational education. That really is a lot, when you consider that it pretty much comes from nothing.”


Anyway, he is happy to stress what the government has done and what is at stake in the elections. “This government has invested heavily in education and research. There really has been a major change of direction. We have brought back the basic student grant, which is good for equal opportunities in education. In science, through sector plans, we have enabled the research universities to create twelve hundred permanent positions. With the new starting and incentive grants, young scientists can find a permanent position more quickly and they also have the resources to shape their own research straight away.”

And might things go wrong after the elections, if the wrong parties push through their own ideas? Dijkgraaf: “In my view, these are all seeds that we have planted and that are starting to bear fruit. These really are long-term investments. Ultimately, this will benefit the Netherlands hugely in terms of innovations and smarter and better ways of solving the major challenges that our society is facing. My biggest worry is that we don’t give this the opportunity to bear fruit.”

Small, medium, large

The exploratory report has to be neutral, but presents three options. Doesn’t that mean that you automatically end up with the ‘medium’ option? Dijkgraaf smiles: “Well, it’s true that, as a minister, civil servants often give you three options: small, medium and large. And yes, in that case, you’re most likely to go for ‘medium’. Small and large are often just there as a formality.”

But it’s not like that with the exploratory report, he says. “Some choices and nuances depend on your political persuasion. But the big question is: how can we provide opportunities for all the talent that we have in the Netherlands? For the major challenges in society, we are totally dependent on people who have been educated for this purpose. That’s why I often talk about the equality of all forms of education – secondary vocational education (mbo), higher vocational education (hbo) and academic education (wo) – because we need everyone. But when you reflect on these themes… then yes, ultimately you come down on the ‘medium’ option.”

At least, that’s what he hopes. It’s election time and the parties are now essentially saying what they all want. “But no one party will achieve an absolute majority”, predicts Dijkgraaf. “Ultimately, the question is clearly this: what are we going to do together? The art of politics is giving and taking in order to come up with a solution that everyone can agree on. The big win here is that you can then make progress.”

He really likes those moments in politics when, after all manner of twists and turns, you succeed in passing a bill or agreeing an investment. “Take the major investments in scientific research, for example: these have definitely materialised. And the return of the basic student grant: at one point that law was in the Statute Book. It’s all extremely frustrating and complicated but, ultimately, you can really make a difference.”

Black magic

Long before he entered politics, he thought that he would never get into it. For him, politics was a kind of black magic, is what he said when he was president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, KNAW. If you press a button in physics, he said, you know exactly which light will come on. In politics, you press a button and a bell rings somewhere but you don’t know where and when. Has his view of politics changed?

“It has. It’s not like it is in science, but when you yourself are in the ‘black box’ that is politics, you see the complex connections from the inside. You have to have the support of society, you have to convince your colleagues in the government, and then there’s the Lower House and the Upper House, and sometimes there’s the Council of State in between. I now understand really well why things often take so long in politics. But there’s a current flowing throughout that chain, and the light will only come on if all the connections are linked to each other.”

If he could, would he like to carry on as Minister? Dijkgraaf hesitates: “I don’t really know exactly what I want to do and what I will do. But my career has been made up of several phases and they are all like different chapters in a book, and my feeling is now that my time as Minister and as part of this government is one such chapter. So, I’m going to start by thinking about how we can close this chapter and then we’ll see what comes next. I’ve devoted my whole life to education and research and I will continue to do so, but in what form? That I don’t know.”