From where I sit - National cuts call for joint action

January 20, 2011

There is no doubt that the funding cuts that are about to hit the UK higher education sector are deep and worrying. But that sector is not alone in Europe in facing a bleaker financial future.

In the worst-case scenario, universities in the Netherlands could see their budgets cut by 18 per cent by 2015, measured against the money the sector received for 2009. But the way these reductions are being applied is different from the approach employed by the UK's coalition government - and some might argue that it is more progressive.

The proposed cuts, if agreed, will be applied both to the higher education research budget and to teaching in our country. In the case of the latter, the government aims to penalise both students and institutions when individuals fail to complete their courses on time.

Those students who graduate late will have to pay an additional €3,000 (£2,500) on top of the statutory fees (€1,700 a year) for each year they stay beyond the statutory length of a programme. In addition, universities will be required to pay a fine of €6,000 for every student who fails to complete within this time frame.

To balance those sanctions, the Dutch government proposes to provide extra resources to boost quality, fund additional student numbers and support research innovation. Overall, ministers say, the sector will be left with a net loss of €10 million by 2015.

You might think that the heads of universities in the Netherlands would be relatively content with these plans, especially in light of the cuts facing UK universities - but we are not.

Of course it makes sense that students should graduate within the standard time frame for their courses. Unfortunately, the Dutch government plans to cut university teaching budgets even if the sector does make improvements in this area. That is one reason why students and lecturers will be demonstrating against the government's plans in The Hague on 21 January.

Moreover, higher education in the Netherlands needs to become more flexible to better fit the needs of employers and the labour market. Penalising students and universities for not sticking to rigid course-length requirements will not help us to achieve this goal.

So universities in both the Netherlands and the UK are dissatisfied with their financial lot. Is there a way we can work together to improve the situation? I hope so.

I would like to see greater cooperation between internationally focused research universities across Europe. What we need is a European statute for higher education, under which selected universities would be funded by the European Union rather than by their national governments. In this way, true European centres of excellence in academic education and research would be created to drive innovation, economic development and prosperity across the European Economic Area.

This might sound like an ambitious plan, but I believe that the current economic climate could act as a catalyst to bring it about. Under the present circumstances, it might be the only way to save our higher education systems from further damaging cutbacks.

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