Holland to sample variable charges

July 2, 2004

University leaders in the Netherlands expect a limited experiment with variable fees to go ahead despite the resignation last month of a junior minister in the coalition government who was the initiative's major supporter.

Annette Nijs, Secretary for Education and a member of the VVD party, resigned after remarks she made in an interview that appeared to criticise Maria van der Hoeven, Education Minister and member of the Christian Democrats (CDA).

But the Dutch university organisation VSNU said this week: "We don't think the resignation of the state secretary will stop the discussion about variable fees. Her successor, Mark Rutte (VVD), is not unlikely to share her thoughts on this."

Ms Nijs successfully secured backing for her fees plan not only from the partner parties in the coalition government but also most recently from Parliament, where her plans had angered some members. But she was forced to concede that her plan, which also envisages lower fees for less popular courses and selection of students rather than universities being required to admit all comers, would be introduced on an experimental basis and evaluated before full implementation.

The experiments are scheduled to begin in the autumn, both for undergraduate student selection and variable fees. They are planned to run for two years, after which an evaluation will determine whether they will become law. The opposition - and some of the VVD's coalition partners, including the liberal democrats (D66) and the CDA - think the selection plans are too radical.

The Dutch National Union of Students is also opposed, fearing that the scheme will result in inequality.

Ms Nijs believes that Dutch higher education is still not sufficiently pioneering to make an international impact and has called for a "Dutch Harvard". During a visit to the UK just before the interview that sparked her resignation, she compared the Dutch approach of a limited experiment with the British Government's decision to go full steam into full implementation of variable fees and then to review the impact in 2009.

"We are starting with an experiment, and institutions will come up with a proposal as to how and when they would like to vary the tuition fee," she said.

"At the same time we are starting the legislation process, so that, when the experiment ends, we can change the legislative proposals if we want to, based on the outcome. Then we can go full steam ahead."

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