Photo DUB

DUO is becoming friendlier, says departing top executive

Body: 

DUO used to be a much less friendly organisation than it is today, says departing executive Hans Schutte. After years of budget cuts, Schutte believes that scope has been created for customer-friendly ideas.

Read in Dutch

The Education Executive Agency (DUO) has had to put its shoulder to the wheel in recent years. The basic student grant was cut, a new loan system put in its place, the IT system was replaced and the long waiting times on the phone needed to be reduced. Hans Schutte, who plans to leave his post as Director-General in April, proudly states that all of these goals were achieved under his leadership.

He also believes that scope has been created for DUO to become more customer-friendly. Good news for the 1.8 million people who have dealings with DUO: from vocational education students, to students at universities of applied sciences and universities, to anyone who is currently repaying a student loan. Because DUO hasn’t always been a customer-friendly organisation.

No fraud
The reason for this interview is not Schutte’s departure but a lawsuit between DUO and a student that lasted for two years, and which even went to the court of appeals. The student in question had not committed fraud. Nevertheless, DUO firmly believed she should repay seven months’ worth of her basic student grant for students living away from home. She had been a little late in informing DUO of her internship in London, while she was still registered with her parents in the Netherlands.

First DUO lost the fight before the administrative judge and then before the Central Court of Appeal. The judges ruled that DUO should have been less rigid. What were they thinking when they decided to take someone who had not committed fraud to court, and then push matters by appealing the administrative judge’s ruling? Why would an organisation want to put that kind of stress on a student?

Schutte would like to emphasize that things usually go well. “We have 1.8 million customers. Each year, we get approximately 2,000 complaints and letters of objection. In 99% of the cases, thankfully, everything goes well.” But this specific case was “very unclear”, says Schutte. “Sometimes you want to hear from the judge how you should handle the tens of thousands of other cases which are sure to follow. We wanted clarity.”

‘A while ago’
To outsiders, this argument is astounding. No fraud had been committed, how much clearer could it be? The judges stated that DUO should have decided differently. Which is what DUO should have done in the first place, without going to court.

Schutte counters that “this case took place some time ago”. “I have to admit that if a similar case were to pop up now, different decisions would likely be made. Although it might be important to appeal a decision for legal reasons, I would also review the matter from a different perspective: is this something we should be doing?”

There was less scope for these types of considerations in the past, according to Schutte. “During the economic crisis, we were faced with one budget cut after another. We had to do more and more with less money. The political ideal was that everything was going to be automated and that we would never again have to deal with students directly. Of course that’s not possible, but we were supposed to work towards that goal nonetheless.”

Privacy
He explains that it’s a constant search for balance. “We need to prevent abuse of student financing, while we also need to be customer friendly. We also have to deal with privacy legislation: sometimes we might not be allowed access to specific information that would actually help us. So we need to use common sense in making decisions.”

Schutte emphasises that DUO is focusing more on its customers now. Eighteen months ago, a youth council was set up with vocational education students and students at universities of applied sciences and universities. “We speak with them once a month, and ask them if there’s anything that stands out to them. Which areas require customised service? Sometimes students say that they do not understand our letters and we make the necessary changes. Other times we might present them with a case.”

In the political arena, there is currently more attention for problems that citizens might have with the government, particularly after the benefits debacle with the tax authority. Schutte hopes that a similar situation will not occur at DUO. “We strive to have an open culture, where people can talk to each other about mistakes and problems.” There was not enough scope for this in the past, he acknowledges, but he is happy that the goalposts have shifted.

‘Better safe than sorry’
“We want to prevent problems as much as possible, instead of trying to solve them when people start to complain”, he says. “Some people end up in complex situations. They might have student debt, a debt with the tax authority and owe a debt to an online shop. We don’t want a situation like that to get out of hand.”

DUO has become more lenient in dealing with payment arrears. If someone fails to pay the monthly amount for February, but does pay March through May, then they will still only owe one month. The late payment simply moves up. It’s only a small example, but it helps to ensure that people don’t have to deal with a collection agency over relatively minor issues.

DUO is also focusing more on graduates who first start making repayments. “We have to make sure they get into a rhythm first”, says Schutte, “or else some find themselves in arrears straight away, and then they have to find a way to solve that problem.”

But he also hopes that people realise how well DUO works. “No other country in the world has a system like MijnDUO, where you can get an overview of your loans and debt 24 hours a day. It’s tremendously flexible.”

Who?
Since 2017, Hans Schutte has been the Director-General of DUO (Education Executive Agency), part of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Prior to that he served as Director-General of the Ministry itself and held various positions as an administrator in vocational education and at universities of applied sciences. From 1 April, Schutte will be managing ROC Mondriaan.

 

Facebook Twitter Whatsapp Mail