Shock as new Dutch government slashes higher education funding

Coalition agreement involves major cuts to research and university funding alongside harsh new measures for students

May 28, 2024
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Sweeping funding cuts announced by the new Dutch government have stunned the higher education sector, with leaders warning that universities will be “hit hard”, research will suffer and students will face greater financial pressure.

Almost six months after the shock victory of Geert Wilders’ far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands’ 2023 general election, three more parties have agreed to form a coalition with the anti-Islam, anti-immigration group: the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the conservative-liberal party of outgoing prime minister Mark Rutte; the populist agrarian Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB); and the recently formed centre-right New Social Contract (NSC). The parties have yet to agree on a prime minister after Mr Wilders ruled himself out in March.

While the outline agreement reached by the four parties discusses “strengthening the knowledge economy” and prioritising innovation and digital infrastructure, it includes significant reductions to the country’s science and higher education budgets. Funding for research and science will be cut by €1.1 billion (£936 million), while the National Growth Fund, which finances research, development and innovation, will be scrapped entirely. Higher education funding, or the “sector plan” fund, will be cut by €215 million per year.

Jouke de Vries, interim head of the umbrella body Universities Netherlands, described the cuts in a statement as “a blow to our students and employees who are already under enormous pressure”, adding: “Together with the major changes in the international character of universities, these cuts are damaging our good education and research.”

“This does not fit with the ambition of the forming parties to strengthen the knowledge economy and the earning capacity of the Netherlands,” he continued. “With this we are putting the future of the young people in our country at risk.”

The student union LSVb has already announced it is planning action over the introduction of a “late study fine”, which will see students who delay the completion of their degree facing a fine of €3,000 per year.

“The fine is a stunning measure that makes it impossible to make mistakes. This creates enormous pressure,” LSVb chair Elisa Weehuizen said in a statement. “A late study fine is a major financial blow at a young age that many young people and their parents cannot afford. This measure affects precisely the Dutch people this government claims to protect.”

The agreement also involves plans to reduce international student numbers through measures such as restricted English-language instruction, a process which is already under way in the Netherlands, and higher tuition fees for students from outside the European Union. The qualification requirements for the country’s “knowledge migrant scheme”, meanwhile, will be “tightened and increased”.

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Marcel Levi, president of the Dutch Research Council’s executive board, said that Dutch science was at risk of falling behind other research-intensive countries, noting that the Netherlands was already failing to reach European Union targets for research investment.

“In the last two years we have benefited from a major top-up coming from the previous government,” he said. “However, even with that additional funding we did not yet achieve spending 3 per cent of our gross national income on research and innovation, as agreed on in the EU.”

“Universities will be hit hard by taking away the ‘sector plan’ funds, which were meant to enhance core funding for most disciplines, and which have enabled fixed contracts for many university staff in the past two years,” Professor Levi said.

Restrictions on international students and workers further concerned him, he told THE: “A large part of our PhD students and postdocs are international, and they contribute greatly to our research.”

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