Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, always seems to be in a good mood. Looking at him, you’d hardly think that these are turbulent times. The government has fallen, elections have been held and no one can predict where things will go from here. Maybe Dijkgraaf will remain in office for months, or maybe it will all be over tomorrow. How does he deal with that? What does a minister do, when any day could be his last?

Performing his role with gusto

We follow him around for an afternoon. It’s a bit like going out on the town with Santa. All eyes are on him. Dijkgraaf is the guest of honour, and he performs that role with gusto. He nods when someone talks sense and laughs at jokes. Today, he’s driving his official car to a community centre in Nieuwegein to receive a report. The report discusses the role of the humanities in addressing complex social problems.

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To illustrate the report, some students give presentations on their activities. One of them discusses difficult words in health care, which patients do not always understand. For example, does the Minister know what ‘aphasia’ is? Dijkgraaf listens to the explanation that it is a language disorder following a brain injury. He is very impressed, reflecting that, “When speaking to patients, it’s better to use simple words.” Then he adds, jokingly, “We could use clear language more often in politics too.”

Dijkgraaf likes giving compliments. The government response is still to come, “but how could we not respond enthusiastically to this?”, he says of the report. His popularity is obvious. There’s no discord, and nobody’s having a go at him.

What is your role at meetings like this?

“Yes, that’s an interesting question. In part, I have a ceremonial role to play: the government is receiving the report. I think that’s very important. At the same time, my role is to encourage all parties here. As a minister, I sit at the top of the hierarchy, but who should do what this report recommends? Surely it’s the research universities, universities of applied sciences, the Dutch Research Council and everyone else who is involved.”

You’re a caretaker minister, and it’s already the end of March. Did you think it would take this long?

“Honestly, yes. The elections were at the end of November, which meant there would be no new government before Christmas. I knew that we’d make it to this point, more or less. But I did start writing plans for March and April in my diary in pencil.”

What has this situation changed for you?

“I never quite felt like I was really a caretaker minister. I even found it a bit liberating.”

He is referring to the space that has been created relative to the coalition agreement. Earlier, he called the fall of the government a defeat.

“We had the great fortune of being able to put quite a lot of things into action before the government fell. The extra money for education and research, the basic student grant … A number of big things were done before 1 July last year. I felt like: wow, I’ve put the plants in the garden, now I have to take care of them for a while.”

Will the next government do the same?

“That, of course, is the big concern. There’s no way of knowing, but every day that the plants are watered and can continue to grow undisturbed is a good day. Someone said: when you’re a caretaker minister, you govern as if every day is your last. That gives you focus.”

And on this ‘last day’ as Minister, you’re receiving a report and presenting an award to the lecturer of the year. Why?

“At this stage, you’re also trying to pass on your ideas – not only to your successor, but also to the sector. Consider, for example, the equal value of all forms of education. I try to push that at every opportunity. And you can do that just by being there.”

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Dijkgraaf comes across so calm and unconcerned, you could almost forget all the problems facing the country. But when we ask about equal opportunities and discrimination, he becomes a bit more alert. It’s obviously close to his heart, but it’s also a more politically risky subject. He has apologised on behalf of the government for indirect discrimination by student finance provider DUO in the fight against abuse of the basic student grant for students living away from home. This mainly involved students from migrant backgrounds.

Do you think that issues like equal opportunities and discrimination will be in good hands with the next government?

“I don’t know what kind of government we will have, and I shouldn’t say anything about that either, but I have learned something about equal opportunities. We often talk about the range of education and the differences between academic education, professional higher education and senior secondary vocational education, but that’s not all that matters. When you start zooming in, you see big differences between study programmes as well. And not all lecturers are alike: one is mindful of giving equal opportunities, while another might not even see the problem, and so on.”

What do you mean by that?

“That as a ministry, you have to pay attention. Between the Ministry and the student, there are at least five or six layers. Now, that’s an important part of equal opportunities: how are things designed for the individual student? Poorer opportunities add up. You might have a migrant background, your parents might not speak Dutch, you might have to make ends meet … To help such students, we have to do something extra.”

“Equal opportunities doesn’t mean saying that the door is open for everyone. If you have to come from far away, sometimes you don’t even reach the door. If there are obstacles in your way, someone has to help you overcome them. That requires targeted policies, and yes, that’s really tough. Everyone has the best intentions, even in politics and ministries. But ultimately, we depend on lecturers and staff who say: I am going to make a difference.”

But some people really do depend on you. You’ve apologised for indirect discrimination, but you still haven’t demanded that the Education Executive Agency (DUO) come up with more solid evidence before taking back the basic student grant.

“I find the whole process painful. We’ve gone through a number of red traffic lights. When selecting students for home checks, there were preconceived ideas. But we want to seriously redesign the checks, and we’re taking this on board.”

All DUO needs in court is a credible suspicion, while students needs solid evidence to refute that suspicion. That’s not balanced. Why don’t you think: I’ll change that before the PVV party takes control?

“The process is in motion, and there are good safeguards in place. There have been questions in the House of Representatives, but I feel that there’s very broad support to take the next steps.”

So you think that one party can’t stop that?

“No, I don’t think so. Who could be against making the system more just? My first debate was on the legal status of senior secondary vocational education students, and that bill passed unanimously. Sometimes, parties say you need to intervene more robustly, while others think things are moving too fast, but one thing is clear: things are moving. Just this morning, I was talking about it with the new government committee to combat racism and discrimination.”

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The Minister has another event scheduled, an award ceremony. In the back seat of the official car, he talks about what he learned in his time as an academic.

When you became a minister, you said that sometimes – just like in academia – you have to wipe the whiteboard clean and ask: what are we doing? Were there enough times when you were able to do that?

“No, not enough. But I did it a few times, and I still like the idea. Legislation and policy are quite complicated. Everything takes a very long time and moves very slowly.”

Why weren’t you able to do that more often?

“As a minister, you’re handed all the books, so to speak, and we’re already up to chapter seven, or chapter three if you’re lucky, but we’re never at the beginning of the story. Things have already been implemented, policies are already in place, there’s already a coalition agreement or whatever. It’s sometimes difficult to explain such policies. When researchers tell me in an academic article what they do, my first question is: why do you do it? What is actually the question we’re answering? That’s what you want to hear first. In policy, something like that is difficult, and it’s also not part of the way ministries think.”

Slow progress is one of the major criticisms of your policies around internationalisation. You get that accusation a lot. Is that related to wiping the whiteboard clean?

“There was already a bill before the Senate, the Language and Accessibility Bill, and that’s exactly why I didn’t let it go ahead. I wanted to know: what problem are we solving? What does our thinking around internationalisation mean, other than calling for ‘more tools’ and ‘fewer students’? I didn’t get a good answer to that, so I said: sorry, I just want to think about it a bit longer. What are our goals, what are our resources and how do we want to set it up? It takes time to analyse it carefully step by step, but we did it anyway. That was really important.”

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The driver parks the car at the back of a theatre, where President Demi Janssen of the Dutch National Student Association (ISO) welcomes the Minister. Effortlessly, he switches to small talk. They recall a dinner at the ISO where the Minister was allowed to uncork a champagne bottle with a sword. “The whole bottle exploded”, laughs Dijkgraaf.

In the auditorium, the meeting for the Lecturer of the Year election is in full swing. Three of the four candidates have already given a brief lecture, and the fourth is speaking when the Minister enters and sits in the front row.

Of course, the presenter asks him questions, and he plays exactly the role he described earlier: he encourages people. “Being a lecturer is what I’ve missed most during my time as Minister”, he says. “Being a teacher also means you learn a lot. You especially learn a lot from your students.” When he says it, those words don’t sound empty, and they are of course well received in a room full of students and lecturers.

The same goes for his words on educational innovation. He says, “Education is about learning new things and exploring new things, but education itself is not the most innovative branch of society. You could take someone from the Middle Ages to a lecture room, and they would still recognise the structure. We’re actually quite conservative, so talking about this at all and having ideas about this is very important to me.” This is met with huge applause.

In the photo

Dijkgraaf presents the award and has his photo taken with the winner. Many students and lecturers come up to him. He seems to enchant them all. Over drinks, one former ’Lecturer of the Year’ sighs to another: “What a pity he’s not going to stay as Minister.”

Robbert Dijkgraaf

Personal Details

– Born in Ridderkerk, 24 January 1960

– Married to Pia de Jong, three children


– PhD, Utrecht University (1989)

– MSc in Theoretical Physics, Utrecht University (1986)

– Gerrit Rietveld Academie, Amsterdam (painting) (1982–1984)

– BSc in Physics, Utrecht University (1982)


– Minister of Education, Culture and Science (10 January 2022 to present)

– Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, and Leon Levy Professor (2012–2021)

– University Professor, University of Amsterdam (2005–2022)

– President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2008–2012)

– Board member of the Folia Civitatis Foundation (2007–2012)

– Professor of Mathematical Physics, University of Amsterdam (1992–2004)

– Long-term Member, School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1991–1992)

– Research Associate, Physics Department, Princeton University (1989–1991)