The centre-right Flemish government has announced plans to increase undergraduate fees by almost 45 per cent, in the face of ongoing student protests and the rector of one public university calling the move “a sorry state of affairs”.
The majority of the approximately 230,000 undergraduates in the Dutch-speaking Belgian province will now pay €890 (£705), up from €619, in annual “inschrijvingsgeld” – registration charges that are effectively tuition fees.
Hilde Crevits, the Flemish minister for education and second-in-command in the province’s coalition government, said in a statement issued today that the rise was necessary as part of €190 million in planned cuts to the education budget.
The hike fell short of the symbolically significant €1,000 mark that some observers thought would be reached after the austerity-minded coalition took power this summer, and Ms Crevits has also announced a 1,000-2,000 increase in the number of low-income “scholarship students” paying token fees of €105 a year.
But student leaders, who led a public protest against fee rises in Brussels on 2 October, with a student delegation meeting Ms Crevits that day, have vowed to battle on. A “symbolic action” of a one-day student strike is planned for 5 November.
Interviewed on De Ochtend, the morning news programme of Flemish state broadcaster VRT, Ms Crevits was asked why Flanders did not follow Germany in abolishing tuition fees, as student groups have urged. She rebuffed the suggestion, stating that while “everyone must make an effort in budgetary savings, education’s cuts are [proportionally] lower than its total share of the budget”, and added that “nearly a quarter of students” are now entitled to reduced fees. Last academic year, nearly 48,000 students qualified for some fees relief.
But speaking on the same programme, Bram Roelant, head of the Flemish Union of Students (VVS), said the union “deeply regretted” that the government “did not listen to student protests”, and said it “will continue to fight”.
Mr Roelant told De Ochtend that extension of fees relief for some students was “outweighed by planned cuts in student services” aimed at “those in greatest need”. He said low-cost student accommodation, subsidised meals, and mental health and careers counselling were at risk.
University leaders have shown qualified support for student concerns.
Interviewed on VRT, Alain Verschoren, rector of the University of Antwerp, said: “Universities know that it is inevitable that savings must be made…[but] the fact that budget savings are made on the backs of students is a sorry state of affairs.”
However, the announcement, he said, at least “provides clarity for institutions. Now we can finally start to prepare our budgets”.
Rik Torfs, rector of Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium’s oldest, largest and highest-ranked university, told VRT that “of course we would have liked no increase in the registration fee”, but it was “all in all not too bad, given the social adjustments that are made”.
But Ghent University rector Anne De Paepe said it was a bad idea to link the rise in fees to budgetary savings. “Education is one of the core areas where the government must remain committed,” she said, adding that the increased fees income “will not be sufficient to compensate for the other savings that we need to make in other areas”.
The coalition government’s proposed changes will now go before the Flemish parliament, where it holds 89 of 124 seats.