A system's failures

November 11, 1994

Radical reform is imminent for Dutch higher education. Jon Henley weighs up the pros and cons and talks to Roderick Lyall, who has just taken up a chair of English literature at Amsterdam's Free University.

The universities are up in arms, students have protested, and employers are unconvinced. But, says the Dutch education ministry, a radical reform of the higher education system can no longer be put off.

"The system as it stands has a number of shortcomings," said ministry spokesman Michael van Wissen van Veen. "But the plans for change are by no means worked out yet and the criticism is premature. The key issue is: how do we arrive at an affordable system that improves flexibility, while still maintaining quality?" The government's aim, says van Wissen van Veen, is essentially threefold: to break down the system's present rigidity, providing courses of different length and level for different subjects and different students; to devolve more management responsibility to the universities; and to address the issue of accessibility and selection in higher education.

In all probability, the reforms will involve a reduction in average course length. But van Wissen van Veen said controversial reports in the Dutch press that the government plans to copy the Anglo-Saxon system by introducing a three-year BA course followed by a selective one or two-year MA are inaccurate. "That was an early idea, yes, but the government is already moving away from it," he said.

The strength of the educational establishment's reaction to the BA/MA proposal, however, should serve as a warning to the government. Coming on the heels of an announcement that the four billion guilder (Pounds 1.46 million) higher education budget was to be cut by 500 million guilders over the next four years, the proposal was seen as a quick way to slash higher education spending with no consideration for course quality or the Dutch university tradition.

Academics argue that a three-year undergraduate course cannot just be imposed on a system founded on the principle of access for all, in which pre-selection for university is -- with the exception of a few courses -- unheard of and students are generally expected to find their own way through the programme of lectures and seminars without the close tutorial supervision common in, for example, British universities.

The BA/MA proposal might, however, have solved one pressing problem in Dutch higher education: how to compare its qualifications with those from foreign universities.

In an increasingly global job market, Dutch graduates often face problems explaining exactly what their doctorandus degree stands for. "The question of the titles we give our qualifications is certainly one part of the problem we're trying to address," said van Wissen van Veen. "Ultimately, if we achieve more differentiation in the courses on offer, that should be reflected in the final diploma -- but those diplomas have to represent an easily-identifiable standard both in the Netherlands and abroad."

A move towards shorter courses will, van Wissen van Veen accepts, create almost as many problems as it solves. "We would certainly have to ensure students leaving secondary school are better equipped to tackle a faster degree course -- although that is something we are already trying to do," he said. "And the question of closer student supervision is, clearly, something that will need to be looked at. Over the coming months, we aim to discuss the whole issue of access and selection in higher education with the universities and student bodies. No solution will work unless it is workable for all concerned."

The government has already taken significant steps to reduce course length and rid the system of the "perpetual student" -- a common phenomenon until the late 1980s. Most undergraduate students at the Netherlands' 14 universities now follow a one-year basic induction course known as the propadeuse, followed by at least three years of further study leading to the doctorandus.

Many students take at least five years to complete their degrees, the maximum period for which they qualify for a student grant. Some take far longer, relying on loans to see them through. University students pay a 2,500 guilder per year fee, irrespective of course, which has increased sharply during the 1980s.

In a bid to speed up the process, the government last year introduced a requirement that students must collect at least 25 per cent of the 42 study points available each year if their grant is not to be converted to a loan. The figure is due to rise to 50 per cent (for existing students) from 1995/96. "As a result of that, students are beginning to plan their schedules much more and take better account of the workload," van Wissen van Veen said.

But the new left-right government installed this summer now plans to improve student work rates further by introducing a performance-related loan system over a four, rather than a five-year period. In future, new students will start each year with a loan that will be converted into a grant only if a required standard is achieved.

But while the move should succeed in speeding up students' progress through the system -- and thus saving the government money -- it does not in itself meet the requirement for more flexibility within the system.

"We have to move towards a system whereby course length relates more to the degree subject," says van Wissen van Veen, "a system that takes account of the needs and abilities of the students, and the requirements of the job market. Do all students really have to follow the same pattern?" With the labour market changing so fast, he argues, some kind of post-university training will in any case become increasingly necessary, and university courses could become more generalist.

"What is important is that graduates can find a job at the end of their courses -- and if we carry on with the present inflexible system we'll be asking for trouble in a few years' time."

A large part of the responsibility for producing the revamped system will fall on the shoulders of the universities, which will eventually be given greater powers to structure courses and student intakes to meet the new criteria. Consultation with them over the coming months should, the education ministry hopes, produce concrete proposals for greater differentiation.

At present, however, universities and students are unwilling to look further than the government's planned spending cuts. "Primary, secondary and vocational education has been spared, and the point is that the higher education sector has been squeezed for so long that there's simply nothing left," said Anke ter Brugge of the Dutch universities association, VSNU.

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