Higher education in the Netherlands: how it does not contribute to increasing the number of higher education graduates

Everywhere in the world, leaders say that education and innovation are the key to success, and the key to coming out of the economic crisis. A very strange thing in this respect is that almost no one of the leaders has the balls to put their words into deeds. In the Netherlands, the government somehow states that education is one of the most important aspects of its work and that it is investing in it. But once taking a closer look, the only trend that can be seen are budget cuts, more cuts and even more; especially in higher education.

The history of higher education in the Netherlands
First, the act of studying was really reserved for the highly talented and rich people in the Netherlands. This changed slowly with the introduction of more and higher grants and scholarships. Since 1986, there has been a system providing basic grants to every student and additional grants to students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, which improved the accessibility of higher education enormously.

Unfortunately, this affected the budget for higher education and from the 1990s onwards, the Dutch government has constantly tried to search for new ways to structure the way these studies are finances. In the past years the monthly amount has decreased and more rules and restrictions changed the rights people had to get the grants. Currently there are many discussions taking place that focus on the abolishment of this basic grant.

Changes and cutbacks in higher education
Nowadays, the government has new plans regarding higher education. First of all, they want to discard all basic grants and transform them into a loan system. This is very worrisome, as it will make studying more expensive and in some cases unaffordable. In the current situation, students who live on their own receive 250 euros a month. Most of students also have jobs on the side and they borrow money from the state. The average debt of a Dutch student after a study period amounts to 15.000 euros. Should the government abolish the scholarships, one can expect that students will have to borrow 13.000 euros extra. The average debt of each student will then be almost 30.000 euros. It is important to realise that this number represents the average, so there will also be students who have to borrow more money.

The most worrisome thing in this development, is the extreme harm it does to the access to higher education. It can be a huge step to decide to go into higher education, especially for students with a low income background. The last indicators show that approximately 10.000 students will refrain from a study in higher education.
In addition to converting study grants into a loan system, the government also wants to reform the free public transport card for students. This has big consequences, as public transport is very expensive in the Netherlands. Public transport costs can run up to 200 euros a month. A direct consequence of this, is that students will more prone to choose a study near their home. This runs in counter to another policy of the government, namely that higher education institutions should make their own profiles. For example, a study in economics in Amsterdam will focus more on macroeconomics, while a study in economics in Rotterdam will focus more on microeconomics. A student should thus choose the study which fits him or her the most. By abolishing the free public transport card, students will look less at these important differences, but more at reducing their study costs and so choose for the study closest to their home.

High efficiency and selection
Not only do the cutbacks in higher education directly affect students, but other measures will also indirectly have a negative impact on students. The Dutch government is more and more focussed on high efficiency. This means that every student should get his or her degree as fast as possible. An example of this, is introducing and increasing the ‘binding study advice’. In the worst case, a student should get 60 ECTS in one year.

Otherwise, the student will be sent away from his study. This means it will be more difficult for students to work on additional skills, do an internship or go abroad for a while, because these extracurricular activities do not fit the curriculum. The result of this will be that all the same graduates that do not have a specific profile, skills or competences, will not be ready for the labour market.

The Dutch government wants also to introduce another selection criteria. This means that the higher education institution will have a last say if students can be admitted, with a firm yes or no. This is worrisome, because students should have their own say in deciding whether they are motivated by saying yes or no, not the institution.

In the Netherlands, children take a test at the age of twelve. On the basis of this test, it is decided whether you go to pre-university (of applied sciences) secondary education. Once you go there, you have the right paper to go to every study within higher education you want (there are some exceptions like medicines, honours programs and university colleges). It is thus wrong to change this system, and to ask for an additional selection criteria from students, because students are already selected at the age of twelve. Students who did pre-university (of applied sciences) secondary education should have the right to choose what they want. These are individuals who know what they want themselves and higher education institutions should not make this decision for them.

Lifelong learning
In the current situation, each student, independent of his or her age, can follow one Bachelor’s and one Master’s programme for the legal tuition fee. Should the student be interested in a second Bachelor’s or Master’s programme, he or she would have to pay the institution fee, which can be up to 32.000 euros for a Master’s programme. This frustrates the lifelong learning aspirations of people that already have a degree.

Until recently most study programs had two options, a fulltime program or a part-time programme. The introduction of the long study fine, which had an extra impact on part-time students because they were expected to study as fast as fulltime students, has changed this. The long study fine meant that students had to pay a fine of 3.000 euros after studying one year longer than the normal duration of the study. This fine has been abolished but the impact has been great on part-time studies. Now there is a decrease in the amount of part-time programmes available and the number of part-time students in public education has fallen dramatically.

These circumstances result in a very bad situation for lifelong learners and this will be compounded by likely reforms in the part-time system. These reforms will encourage privatisation of part-time education because institutions will no longer be funded for part-time education. Instead the part-time learner will get a small grant to pay for his or her education, but this grant will only be made available when a student studies within a certain field. For example, the government has assigned certain top sectors as creative industry, life technology, etc. Only studies in these fields will be eligible for a grant.

All these developments frustrate lifelong learning ambitions. The LSVb is fighting for the reduction of the tuition fees for second degrees and is developing a plan to save public funded part-time education. But as long as the government’s plans are not really clear it is hard for us to decide a focus. The Modernisation Agenda would help us to put pressure on our government in this respect.

Higher education and the EU
The European Union has a limited role in higher education, as national governments want to keep education policies close to themselves. However, it is very important that the EU realises that budget cuts in higher education are on the rise everywhere in Europe. This is worrisome, as youth unemployment is increasing every single month.

Programmes like Erasmus+ can contribute to providing more opportunities for students to gain additional skills. However, as students thereafter are not able to make use of programmes like Erasmus+, due to the fact that it does not fit into curricula, there will be a serious problem.

We are highly concerned about all the changes that are planned by the Dutch government. We do not want to see access to higher education narrow down, which means we would go back in time where studies are restricted for the rich and extremely talented. Investment in higher education is an investment in society and it is important that everybody has the opportunity to develop themselves.