In 2008, Robbert Dijkgraaf was president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. A renowned scientist, he couldn’t imagine ever becoming a minister. He even referred to politics as a kind of black magic. “Look, in physics you can say: if I press this button here, a light will go on there. If you push a button in politics, maybe some day a light will go on somewhere far away, but you don’t know when and you don’t know where”, he said in an interview on this website.

 

'High hopes'

But then, in January 2022, he did enter the political arena. He became Minister of Education, Culture and Science for D66, and rarely has a new cabinet member been welcomed with such enthusiasm. Reporters, columnists and cartoonists heaped praise on him, and even the protest group WOinActie had “high hopes”. The only sour note came from the daily De Telegraaf, which called him a technocrat.

In short, the stage was set for a major disappointment. But Dijkgraaf had an easy start: he was given extra money to spend. Over a billion euros had been added to the science budget, and he was tasked with reinstituting the basic student grant.

Sure, not everyone was satisfied with the new grant amounts, but Dijkgraaf’s reputation remained untarnished. Even his critics understood that he hadn’t set the amounts himself.

Always a listener

Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, on a working visit to Erasmus MC. Image credit: Levien Willemse

In debates, he proved to be a good listener. Most ministers stare at their phones or go through their notes during long debates, the daily NRC noted. “All but one. Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education for D66, always listens.” You could have mistaken him for a spectator at a tennis match.

Dijkgraaf was also happy to seek advice. Before reintroducing the basic student grant, he presented several options to the House of Representatives. The cabinet parties themselves came up with a way to increase the supplementary grant, by scrapping the 50 percent tuition fee discount for first-year students. From there, it was smooth sailing.

He was so courteous that even his political opponents appreciated him, and he was rarely the target of personal attacks. Perhaps that’s why one of his major political pitfalls didn’t stand out as much as it could have: his apparent inability to convince right-wing and populist parties that he was setting the right course.

Foreign students bill withdrawn

Take internationalisation, for instance. To the annoyance of right-wing parties, Dijkgraaf seemed unbothered by the influx of foreign students. He withdrew a bill introduced by his predecessor, while the number of non-Dutch enrolments kept rising. The commotion this caused was overblown, he felt, and he scornfully referred to the annual spate of newspaper articles about homeless international students forced to sleep in tents as a ‘tradition’ marking the start of the new academic year. In any case, he didn’t want to be rushed. Rightly or not, he underestimated how people on the right of the Dutch political spectrum viewed this issue.

Dijkgraaf spoke of diligence, checks and balances, and sound agreements with administrators, and said he needed some time to think about the matter. He asked for consultation after consultation. In the end, it would take more than two years for him – now as outgoing minister – to send his bill to the House of Representatives.

Meanwhile, populist parties blamed the lack of student housing on international students and pretended there was an easy solution: let’s just go back to teaching in Dutch. That’ll scare off all those foreigners, and who’s going to miss them? Not the man in the street!

Equal opportunity

Most parties were sympathetic to Dijkgraaf’s equal opportunity efforts, although some of them quite literally boiled down to semantics. For example, he wanted to do away with the term ‘higher education’ in everyday language to emphasise the fact that all forms of education are of equal value, as part of a ‘fan’. “Anything we can do to reduce differences is good.”

He did take decisive action when news broke that DUO, the agency responsible for student finance, was using discriminatory practices in combating basic student grant fraud. DUO was mainly targeting students from immigrant backgrounds, according to investigations by HOP, Investico, NOSop3 and Trouw. The ensuing scandal clearly had a profound effect on him. He immediately ordered DUO to pause the algorithm it was using to identify suspicious students, and he commissioned a thorough investigation into the agency’s anti-fraud measures.

Nevertheless, he didn’t want to acknowledge that innocent students had been affected. Nor did he want to strengthen the position of students: in case of doubt, they are still at a disadvantage. Dijkgraaf wanted to wait for a review of the system to be completed – once the results were in, it would be clear to everyone what needed to be done. But now that the cabinet has stepped down, everything is up in the air again.

Protecting science

His science policy shows the same pattern. In his first public lecture as a member of the Rutte-IV cabinet, Dijkgraaf said to the scientists present: “Many of you know me as a former colleague, as ‘one of us’. I sincerely hope that I will have the privilege of remaining one of you, even during my term as minister in the years ahead.”

Dijkgraaf seemed eager to protect academia from politics and populism. “Let’s all stand by the facts so as to protect our scientists”, he said. His message was that we still desperately need science to solve big problems such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and social inequality.

Despite not wanting to rain on his parade, NRC columnist Maxim Februari still warned that it all sounded a bit out of touch with reality. After all, academia was beset by integrity issues, while the pharmaceutical industry was raking in exorbitant profits. “People read about these things – I read about these things – and the public isn’t stupid. So why do science administrators invariably churn out these glowing texts, written by their marketing departments, in which science is presented as a shining beacon of knowledge that cannot be questioned?”

Dijkgraaf’s arguments failed to convince his opponents. BBB won the Provincial Council elections, despite their poorly argued opposition to the nitrogen emissions legislation and their efforts to undermine trust in scientists.

Extra funding

Dijkgraaf had hundreds of millions of euros in extra research money, and he was going to spend it. He wanted researchers to have peace of mind and space to do their work.

Universities were given 200 million euros a year for national cooperation plans, and there was also money for start-up and incentive grants for new university lecturers and other scientists. Here, he seemed to be in more of a hurry. Dijkgraaf also pulled off a clever bit of political manoeuvring: he put his critics on a committee together with administrators to flesh out the plans, and they actually came to a consensus. There were some minor quibbles, but basically everyone in Dutch academia hailed the outcome as good news.

But people on the right have a more one-dimensional view of science. What are we actually paying for? Why isn’t all that money going to engineering, innovation or better medicine? In an election debate, VVD minister Christianne van de Wal called her fellow cabinet member Dijkgraaf a “fantastic minister”, just before ridiculing his policies and pleading for austerity. BBB’s Mona Keizer, recently tapped as the new housing minister, stressed the importance of working with the business community: “Because you can come up with all these wonderful ideas, but how are you going to roll them out?”

Contempt of the PVV

And then there’s the PVV’s outright contempt for science and expertise. PVV, VVD, NSC and BBB are set to cut one billion from higher education and research, which PVV MP Reiner Blaauw saw as cause for celebration. He hopes the cuts will sound the death knell for woke activist culture at universities.

“That was deeply painful to hear”, Dijkgraaf said recently in an interview with NRC. “I get the impression that it’s rooted in a desire for revenge, which is difficult to accept for me.” Duly noted, but he did fail to stay ahead of the would-be avengers.

Perhaps he paid too little attention to the political battlefield. He positioned himself as an outsider in The Hague – someone performing the noble task of implementing sensible policy.

Looking back now, De Telegraaf’s less than enthusiastic reaction to his appointment can be seen as a portent of things to come. Level-headed governance doesn’t always do the trick. In the end, Dijkgraaf proved too polite to offer a strong enough rebuttal to the populists.

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