Coalition agreement: less English, more technology in higher education

Presentation of the coalition agreement Source: Tweede Kamer

This and more is stated in the coalition agreement presented by the four parties VVD, CDA, D66 and ChristenUnie. The new government will also restrict the use of ‘selection at the gate’, and bachelor’s studies that want to limit the number of students enrolling will need to substantiate this choice better.

Study loans
Last week, it became known that first-year students will receive 1000 euros discount on their college fees. This will also count for second year Pabo students (teacher’s school). “We’re hoping to make studying at the (academic) Pabo more interesting to students,” the parties state. But students are paying for the discount themselves. The interest on student loans is going up, and according to calculations by the Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis, this will give the government around 200 million euros: exactly the amount that’s needed to lower the first year college fees.

The ‘basisbeurs’, a standard financial grant for students, will not return. The coalition agreement mentions nothing about additional financial aid options.

English and international
Studies will have to thoroughly consider what their main language will be. “The government will be alert on the following of the law in regards to education only being conducted in English when and if this is of added value,” the coalition agreement states. Furthermore, there will have to be enough Dutch-language studies available, the parties warn. But foreign students remain welcome, and not just that: the government wants to make education in the Netherlands more attractive to foreign students – while keeping it accessible, the agreement points out. That last bit likely refers to studies that allow a limited number of students, the so-called fixus studies: the CDA wants Dutch students to be given priority in those.

Selection and restrictions
The coalition parties are worried about student selection in master’s studies. Master’s studies will still be allowed to choose their own students, but will have to adhere to stricter guidelines: the methods for selection will have to be ‘transparent and fair’ and every graduated bachelor’s student will have the right to start at least one master’s within his or her own discipline.

Bachelor’s studies will no longer be able to decide to restrict the number of students enrolling on their own, and will have to adequately substantiate their reasoning. If this isn’t done, the minister will have the power to veto the decision.

Technology-related studies
The studies in technology-related fields have been complaining for years that they’re barely able to handle the influx of students. The government wants to provide them with extra funds, at the cost of funds for other studies. In other words, there’s a reallocation of the funds for higher education, “with specific attention to the technological studies”.

More money for science
The technical sciences can also count on more funds. The government will connect the funding for scientific research to “research efforts, scientific quality and societal impact”, according to the coalition agreement. “Special attention will go to technical sciences and research groups that have to deal with high costs.”

Research financing organization NWO has no choice but to comply. It “prioritizes fundamental research in the context of the National Scientific Agenda and the Top sectors, with the new focus,” the government states. Free competition will remain. There will have to “be as well as remain” sufficient room for free research, the text says. “The budget for fundamental research will be increased in steps to a structural 200 million euros annually starting in 2020. A similar intensification will happen in the budget for applied sciences and innovation.” The government also wants to improve the research infrastructure with two times 50 million euros.

Quality agreements
The controversial performance agreements in higher education will return in a new shape, now called quality agreements. They will be linked to the proceeds of the new loan system – hundreds of millions of euros a year.

The idea is that this time, institutions for higher education are allowed to choose their own objectives and indicators. The Ministry of Education will only check whether the objectives fit within the national Strategic Agenda. An independent commission will then assess whether the organizations manage to meet their objectives. If not, they will receive less money. Last time, six universities of applied sciences received less money after not meeting the objectives agreed upon with the ministry.

First reactions
Universities and universities of applied sciences say the coalition agreement is a step in the right direction. Students and opposition parties remain skeptical. Students, especially, bear the brunt of the negative aspects of the plans.

The first to react to the new coalition agreement were student organizations ISO and LSvB. They became enraged after reading the agreement, and sent out press release after press release. “The new coalition is neglecting the opportunity to fix the damage that was done by the introduction of the loan system,” says LSvB chairman Tariq Sewbaransingh. His colleague Rhea van der Dong of the ISO is disappointed, too: “Clearly, higher education is not a top priority to the new government.”

Universities and universities of applied sciences are more moderate in their responses, and say they see opportunities in the new agreement. The new coalition agreement is “a step in the right direction for science and higher education in the global top,” the universities state. They’re happy to get the 400 million euros extra funding and are looking forward to “convert it into knowledge”. They’re thinking of cyber security and digital solutions in health care, in investments in students’ IT skills, “in cooperation with the universities of applied sciences”.

And the quality agreements the universities will have to make? There are mixed feelings about this. VSNU chairman Pieter Duisenberg: “It’s good that the coalition agreement is leaving the actual formation and shape of these agreements up to the educational institutions, students, employees and other stakeholders. The possibility of a financial punishment, however, will impede the forming of structural investments, including tenure.”

The universities are more optimistic about the government’s other plans, such as those about open science and internationalization in higher education. But they really should be receiving more money, they say.

Utrecht’s rector Bert van der Zwaan agrees with the VSNU’s statement. “Although a lot is still unclear. We have to wait and see how this translates to practice. At first glance I’d say we’re not winning much and we’re not losing much.”