From where I sit: Reformation, but at what cost?

September 17, 2009

The start of the Dutch academic year is an intriguing spectacle. Even the University of Twente, set up in 1961, takes the opportunity for its professors to parade through Enschede's town centre in their full Golden Age pomp.

The dress code for visitors is like Ladies' Day at Royal Ascot: hats, frocks and pinstripes abound. It is a place to see and be seen, and is partly designed to put Dutch higher education in the next day's headlines.

This year, Twente invited Ronald Plasterk, the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, to give a "state of the nation" address. But his remarks came with an added twist: the minister faced growing criticism for perceived indecision.

Just two days before the opening, quality newspaper NRC Handelsblad had savaged Professor Plasterk's time in office. Even de Volkskrant, a paper he wrote a column for until 2007, attacked him for failing to take the hard decisions needed by Dutch higher education.

Enrolments for this academic year are up by one quarter, but the sector faces block-grant levels set according to student numbers two years ago. The potential for much larger classes and dwindling funding has contributed to a sector-wide sense of crisis.

The audience in the new National Music Centre in Enschede wanted to hear the same things as Professor Plasterk's critics in the press and protesting students outside - more money and less privatisation.

But he deftly delivered a surprising riposte, arousing the audience's curiosity with the words: "I'm not going to preach to you, because I've got something to say."

So began an address that culminated in him announcing a review of higher education and potentially an end to the binary split between universities and polytechnics.

His argument was that the Dutch system is too divided, making students too path-dependent at too early an age, with too few progression pathways for non-traditional students. He announced a commission of inquiry to investigate alternatives to complement higher professional and scientific courses, potentially modelled on the Californian public system.

Surprisingly, both the polytechnic and university associations quickly came out in favour of the proposals. But with students' organisations and three political parties opposed to the reform, its direction is up for grabs.

The driver for the plan is growing recognition of the value of diversity in a mass system, alongside difficulties promoting this within a structure of narrow output rewards, league tables and intense competition.

The plan hints at the creation of a Dutch scientific elite at the European scale, alongside more vocational institutions concentrating on what they do best - preparing students for work.

Against this is the parallel pressure of the Dutch budget deficit driving substantial cuts. Institutional reform encouraging more students to take much cheaper two-year associate or three-year general bachelors degrees would allow growing participation while limiting the financial pain.

Professor Plasterk's speech dominated the opening-day headlines and news bulletins, and certainly relieved his short-term political problems. It remains to be seen if universities and polytechnics will remain willing to foot the hefty bill for belatedly salvaging the minister's chance to enter the history books as Dutch higher education's great reformer.

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