Dutch feel business grip tighten

May 22, 1998

The Dutch education ministry has announced plans for modernising universities to help smooth graduates' transition to working life.

Education minister Jo Ritzen is harnessing businesses in a controversial project to make universities more labour-market friendly.

From the beginning of the next academic year, seven universities will experiment with "dual education", in which students will gain practical experience in a workplace in addition to their normal studies. Fl12 million (Pounds 3.5 million) has been earmarked for the project.

Traditionally the only undergraduates in the Netherlands to undergo vocational training have been in medicine, law, veterinary medicine and theology. Now students of subjects as diverse as rural and urban planning, human geography, Dutch, education, law and business studies will be offered work experience towards the end of their degree course.

The universities of Leiden, Nijmegen, Rotterdam, Utrecht, Groningen, Tilburg and the Vrije in Amsterdam are to take part. The project will be evaluated after three years and a decision taken about whether or not to extend it. It is the latest of a series of measures aimed at integrating the academic world with Dutch society.

A growing number of politicians from across the political spectrum have said that university education had become too esoteric.

Under Mr Ritzen universities have seen radical changes in the past three years to create new centres of excellence under his "more for less" scheme.

Mr Ritzen has slashed education funding and raised fees. Students who choose their courses at 17 are now under strong pressure to earn high numbers of study points and to complete their degrees in five years. Instead of a grant, they receive an amount of money that becomes a loan if maximum study points are not achieved.

In marked contrast to the 1970s when a generous system allowed undergraduates to take up to nine years to complete their studies, a stricter selection process and limited funding now weed out potential failures at a much earlier stage.

But the recent appointment of key figures from the Dutch business world to new watchdog committees in six universities has stirred academic protest. The committees have considerable influence over the day-to-day running of the universities' affairs.

The reforms have led to a sharp drop in demand for places on arts and humanities courses, as students opt for more practical studies that are likely to lead to jobs.

The education ministry hopes that the scheme will benefit the companies that participate, as well as students, by familiarising them with each other's environments.

The quality of education can be improved, it says, by universities learning from the experiences of employers and students working together and adapting.

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