Dutch ambition capped

March 22, 1996

After years of shifting goalposts, Dutch universities are now aiming to achieve 'studyability'. What that means in practice is debatable, especially when institutions must go Dutch on the cost of any new initiatives, says Grahame Lock

The standing of Dutch universities depends on their ability to continue to turn out good students, as well as articles and books, while their senior and junior members retain a belief in the university as an ideal.

Both of these factors are being put to a severe test. In the Netherlands, as in many other continental countries, there is a policy of higher education for all - that is to say, for all who take their school-leaving certificate. Some members of this relatively large group go into professional training but many choose university. It should be added that students, having entered the university system, graduate whenever they have accumulated enough total credit points (calculated at a point per week, a study week being set at 38 hours) - 168 credits in all. In theory - and until a few years ago in practice - a student could thus delay graduation for as long as he or she desired.

In past years the education ministry has made various attempts to stop this expensive practice. At first, it put a legal limit on the number of years usually six a student could devote to his or her studies. This had the effect, which might have been expected, of causing nearly all students to spread their academic obligations over the whole of the six years allowed to them. The ministry's next step was to introduce measures one following swiftly after another, so that no yearly intake of students ever fell under the same rules as the previous year's - to link student grants to individual study speed.

In general, if a student failed to accumulate a certain number of credits in a given year, his or her grant was transformed into a loan, which would eventually have to be paid back. The rules were constantly changing: the number of credit points needed in order to ward off looming danger was regularly raised, creating considerable anger in each new student intake.

In this context Joe Ritzen, minister for education, seems to have decided to try to impress parliament and public by announcing that he would be taking special measures, not just to improve the quality of university education (every "customer" has a right to a "quality product"), but also to guarantee the "studyability" of degree courses.

The official meaning of this term is that a guarantee is to be offered to any undergraduate who passes his or her first-year examinations - these take the place of selection before entry, a kind of alternative weeding-out process for those unsuited for academic study - that the degree can be taken within another three years. The minister's goal is that all students should graduate in a maximum of four years.

Such initiatives, sold under the name of customer quality, are really the result of the general reductions in the higher education budget, the most recent of which planned a cut of Dfl 200 million (Pounds 80 million).

It might be asked why the Dutch did not simply arrange that all students take final written examinations four years after the date of matriculation, and give them an appropriate grade? The answer is that there are all kinds of political and ideological complications that make any such suggestion unthinkable or politically unacceptable.

Thus the studeerbaarheidsfonds - an application of business economics to higher education. The term "studyability" can be given all kinds of interpretations. It might mean for instance that the university tries to discover what students it has - the ones it really has, rather than the ones who once registered for some degree course, or more than one course, then disappeared, or became temporarily interested in some other field of social activity, or moved to another university without deregistering and so on.

A powerful computer programme, backed up by experts in information technology, might do that job. It could also mean designing curricula so that a student does not discover that the introductory course needed to follow a chosen second-year specialisation is not on offer until the last term of that year.

It might mean a thousand other things. Universities are being invited to submit proposals to the ministry for such improvements. The ministry will select likely initiatives and fund them, out of a reserved Dfl 500 million. Or, rather, it will help fund them, on the basis of a "matching" principle. Each university, indeed each faculty, will have to come up with roughly half the cost of the projects it wants to implement.

Why should a university or faculty want to implement something when it has to bear half the cost? Some of the ideas are, under the circumstances, quite good.

But another answer is that the money the minister is making available is in effect being subtracted from university budgets at an earlier stage. The minister can skim off as much as he likes. Only if the universities accept his game, that is to accept his priorities (in this case "studyability") will they get back what they would have received in the first place.

This game is one the ministry is even fonder of playing. Given that it announced some time ago that the government intended to increase the universities' autonomy substantially, it might seem strange that it should now be involved in ever more direct intervention. Students of bureaucracy will not, however, be surprised by this effect, nor by the counter productive effects of the studyability initiative.

According to the matching principle, the faculties will have to come up with very substantial sums (typically hundreds of thousands of guilders each) to get anything back from the ministry. But since they have little or no cash available, their only option is to invest the working time of their existing staff.

Some faculties might have to contribute 5 or 10 per cent of that time to get the matching cash - none of which, time or cash, will be used for teaching or research but for creating the conditions for studyability.

Some Dutch academics have calculated that the result of the ministry's plan will be (another) loss in the real quality of teaching in the institutions.

The Raad van State - the Dutch Supreme Court, which advises on new legislation, though it cannot block it - recently issued its verdict on the minister's latest planned revision of the higher education law which provides for the introduction of the studeerbaarheidsfonds.

In their report the judges dismissed the plan as "a purely optical operation". First, money is withdrawn from the grants made available to universities, then it is given back, at least in part, on conditions determined by the ministry. The Raad van State is also sceptical about the conditions - why not just give the money to institutions and let them determine how best to spend it? Or use it to reduce student fees? And so on.

It should be made clear that none of these issues are party political. The minister is from the Labour party. But few in the Netherlands seriously believe that a minister from another party would approach higher education policy in a fundamentally different way.

Let those in the United Kingdom who expect great things from a change in government therefore beware: in the Netherlands we have seen the future and it works - or at least, it seems to be impossible to stop it working, however much the academics would like to stop it. The minister has meanwhile announced that he will take no heed of the criticism from the Raad van State and will shortly be submitting the essence of his original plan to parliament.

The debate on the studeerbaarheidsfonds is just this season's higher education issue. Research policy is subjected to similar, endlessly changing rules and demands. Again on the teaching front, a new idea is now being touted - after all the fuss, which lay behind the studeerbaarheidsfonds debate, about the four-year degree - to reduce degree courses to . . . three years.

Junior minister Aad Nuis (from D66, the left-of-centre Liberal party) is behind this plan. But the point is not so much whether it will ever be implemented - plans are almost never implemented in their original version but in some unrecognisable form, whose rationale is entirely different from or even contrary to the original idea. It is rather that, like all of the "policy initiatives" launched in the past few years, it will make its contribution to keeping a bevy of bureaucrats, and most academics, very busy with matters which have little to do with the primary processes of teaching and research.

Yet most academics love their real work and are much attached to their institutions. So they are not always happy with developments.

Grahame Lock is professorof political theory at the University of Nijmegen.

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