A physicist as minister could prompt a quantum leap in Dutch HE

Robbert Dijkgraaf's appointment to the Netherlands’ new government has got academics very excited, says Michèle Wera

January 10, 2022
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The new year in the Netherlands is starting promisingly. Today, a new government is being sworn in after almost 10 months of political negotiations. And one of the most interesting cabinet members is the renowned scientist Robbert Dijkgraaf, who becomes minister of education, culture and science.

The physicist was put forward by the liberal-democratic party D66 even though he has no political experience. For the past 10 years, he has been director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. He is also a professor at the University of Amsterdam and holds numerous awards and honours. Earlier in life, he took art classes at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie.

In the Netherlands, Dijkgraaf is also a well-known guest on talk shows, and he writes a weekly column in a Dutch newspaper. As a theoretical physicist, he openly criticised the lack of funds for education and especially for the humanities. No wonder academics are excited about the appointment of this homo universalis. As a quality-assurance professional, I am excited, too. Here are my five priorities for the new minister.

Scholarships

The new government will reintroduce scholarships for all students after a distressing switch to loans in 2015. Students are pleased with this turn of events. However, it is not clear where the space is in the education budget to fulfil the government’s pledge also to fully compensate students with existing study debts. This will be one of the first tests of Dijkgraaf’s no-nonsense approach.

Quality agreements

On top of this, Dijkgraaf will have to determine the best use of the public money saved by the switch to the loan system. These funds were to be invested in the quality of education; universities presented their plans in so-called quality agreements, which were assessed by the Accreditation Organisation in the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO). The next step would be to assess the implementation of these plans, covering the period 2019-2024. Given the criticism of the bureaucratic assessment procedure, one can only hope that the new minister will follow a different path.

Institutional accreditation

Another interesting question is how the Netherlands will follow up on the Bologna Agreement. After two decades of programme accreditation, Dutch higher education is ready for the next step: institutional accreditation. The quality of educational programmes is not necessarily dependent on formal review procedures and NVAO accreditation decisions. In the Netherlands, programmes were being peer reviewed long before the existence of Bologna and NVAO.

Enhancing the quality of education and learning from your peers are basic principles for every professional. But we can do without the burdens that come with over-regulated processes. Bologna is also based on trust, in our universities and their staff and students. By now, all Dutch universities have proved themselves to have well-developed and rigid internal quality-assurance systems. Let that be the starting point for the ministerial decision on how to proceed.

New programmes

With universities taking full responsibility for the quality of their educational programmes, they can also decide for themselves about starting new programmes. On a yearly basis, NVAO receives roughly 80 applications for initial accreditation procedures. A panel of peers reviews each plan during a site visit, resulting in an advisory report. NVAO takes its decision based on this outcome.

This review process takes at least six months and is quite demanding on universities, NVAO and its panels. What might be the added value? With the introduction of institutional accreditation, the necessity of initial accreditation procedures must be reconsidered.

In my world of quality assurance, the key question is: why? Why go through a lengthy and costly procedure? Why not put trust in universities organising their own reviews for both existing and new programmes? The quality criteria are the same and so is the review process. A shortcut to greater efficiency would be more than welcome.

English language usage

A persistent quality issue in Dutch higher education is the prevalence of English. With a Princeton man leading the Ministry of Education, we must wait and see which direction the discussion will take. As I have previously explained in Times Higher Education, not many countries in Europe offer as many high-quality and affordable programmes in English.

It certainly attracts many non-Dutch students, but the growing international student population creates its own problems. Do we need English-taught programmes in engineering, in literature, in psychology? In 2018, the previous minister of education, Ingrid van Engelshoven – also a member of the D66 party – set out a policy for internationalisation, focusing on language, equality, inclusiveness and student facilities. Its effects are yet to be seen.

As an international scholar, Dijkgraaf can offer new insights and provide universities with rational terms of reference for reviewing their international goals and action plans. That would be a valuable contribution to the often-heated debate about language-related quality issues in Dutch higher education.

Michèle Wera is a senior policy adviser for the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) in The Hague.

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