Stability after high-speed reforms

March 22, 1996

David Jobbins relates how an academic turned education minister upset the Dutch establishment

Dutch universities believed the turmoil of the 1980s was behind them after a centre-left coalition was elected in 1994 with a Social Democrat minister and former academic as its education minister.

They were soon disabused. Jo Ritzen, the minister, was soon firing off further plans for reform against a background of renewed cuts in funding. The universities were appalled at cuts in their grant of Dfl 500 million (Pounds 200 million) and a further Dfl 1.5 million in student support.

As the second anniversary of the new coalition approaches, they can at last look forward to an interlude of stability following last autumn's revolt by university presidents who threatened to refuse to discuss longer-term reform until the short- term financial future was secured, and large-scale student demonstrations.

Jo Ritzen survived. In fact his place in the Cabinet is as strong as ever despite anxieties within his party over the effects of his policies on access to university from disadvantaged groups within society. And the universities accept that education is no longer as hot a political issue as crime, the environment, health and, particularly in the light of the Fokker collapse, jobs.

Many in the universities accepted that the European model of a place for every qualified student and the absence of any limits on completion time, coupled with comparatively generous student grants, made their position difficult to defend.

But there was anger at the lack of consultation, particularly over plans to tackle the "eternal student" problem by restricting the duration of study. The employers' bodies in particular were against plans for a three-year degree because of the broad nature of Dutch secondary education.

The pace of reform, aimed at greater efficiency in the use of public money and avoidance of the waste inherent in a non-selecive system dogged by a 60 per cent drop-out rate, was seen as too fast.

It was simply impossible to monitor the impact of one change because no two successive cohorts of students were studying under the same regime.

Eventually a compromise emerged. Universities were to be financed on the basis of a four-year study period and students' grant entitlement was also restricted and made subject to academic performance. The universities were generally satisfied with the solution, which left them free to offer three-year courses - a message they interpreted as an affirmation of their autonomy.

But student anger continues to be directed at the new study finance scheme, under which all new students receive a loan which is converted into a grant only if they achieve 70 per cent of their study points in their first year and complete their studies within six.

Existing students will have their grants turned into loans if they fail to achieve 50 per cent of their study points in 1995 and 1996, rising to 70 per cent in 1997 and 1998. In the first year of the tougher rules 5 per cent of the nation's 400,000 higher education students failed to meet the target and face having to repay a total of Dfl 78 million.

Frank van Eijkern, director of the Dutch universities organisation, VSNU, thinks the government over-reacted by trying to tackle length of study before the implications of the new financial aid regime worked through.

"We said we should wait four to five years to see if six years is going to be four," Mr van Eijkern said.

Professor Ritzen has offered a moratorium in the form of a review of the effects of changes. It is expected to be finished by the autumn and in the meantime student numbers have been pegged and budget cuts deferred. But the threats remain - cuts of Dfl 200 million have only been deferred until 2004.

The Netherlands has been bucking the European trend with a slight reduction in the numbers entering its 13 mainstream universities. Massification of Dutch higher education was transferred to the 83 hogescholen, which offer vocational higher education but, in a reflection of the old binary divide in the United Kingdom, undertake limited research.

No one knows why but up to 10 per cent of those qualified for university have unexpectedly chosen not to enter, with serious implications for the universities' forward-planning. To avoid these uncertainities, VSNU wants to discuss with ministers ways of making the financial system less student-led. Universities are paying the price for greater autonomy in the form of redundancy payments - formerly met by the state - to academics whose courses have fallen out of favour. About 10 per cent of the universities' total budget now goes on redundancy payments and the institutions believe that if they are responsible they should be able to divert students to other courses.

One of the potential consequences is a shift in the social composition of the student body. This worries Mike Riegel, president of the student union, LSV. "We need a new system of financing study. Three or four years ago we put forward our alternatives (like the Australian HECS scheme) which are cheaper in the long run than the system we have now, but they (the government) did not want to listen then.

"The system we have now is nine years old and there have been 40 changes to it. Students can no longer rely on the government."

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