Illustration: Rueben Millenaar

Influx of international students contributed to render basic grant millions insufficient


When the Dutch government abolished the basic student grant in 2015, Dutch students were promised that the millions of euros freed up by the measure would be invested in improvements for higher education institutions. But those millions turned out to be a drop in the ocean because of the explosive growth in the number of international students. 

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To stay ahead of the competition, in 2014 the University of Amsterdam (UvA) decided to accelerate the development of an interdisciplinary Bachelor's programme called Politics, Psychology, Law & Economics (PPLE). Four hundred applications had already been received by May of that year, even though the accreditation had not even been finalised and the student council had yet to approve the launch of the programme, which would be taught in English and was aimed at "ambitious and intellectually talented students".

"We, members of the student council, were ambivalent about that project", says Stefan Wirken, who took on the role of president of the Dutch Student Union (LSVb) in 2015, after having served as a member of the student council of the Faculty of Law for two years, taking final responsibility for the PPLE programme. "It looked a lot like a prestige project, an expensive programme to attract international students", explains Wirken, who currently works as a lawyer at the Municipality of Amsterdam.

PPLE is officially recognised as a small-scale, intensive programme, which is why it is allowed to select at the gate and charge extra tuition fees. The programme was launched in 2014 with 88 students. Currently, it admits around two hundred students annually, of which two out of three students come from abroad. Dutch and EU students paid 4,336 euros in tuition fees this academic year – double the statutory rate. Students from outside the EU pay the institutional fee of 13,300 euros. In short, a study programme for the lucky few, which brings in a lot of money for the university.

Despite the programme's elitist character, the student council agreed to launch it in the nick of time. "We did it because there would be cross-pollination between PPLE and the traditional law programme", explains Wirken. "Law students could benefit from the new interdisciplinary education. We could, for example, get minors at PPLE. At least that was the story we were told then, but the reality turned out to be different. There was a sort of Chinese wall between Law and PPLE. There was no exchange". However, Wirken does acknowledge that the physical distance between the two has contributed to the lack of interaction: at the time, UvA's law school was located in the city centre, while PPLE was based on the Roeterseiland campus, in the east side of Amsterdam.

The fact that the UvA paid part of the costs to set up the new study programme using the so-called pre-investments bothers Wirken much more. "PPLE is an English-taught programme that attracts many international students. I am not at all against internationalisation and foreign students, but it was Dutch students who were stripped of their basic grant and were promised better education in exchange. In the law faculty, we've hardly seen any change".

In 2015, the Dutch Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker (PvdA), promised all students who lost their basic grant that higher education  would be more small-scale and intensive: less students per class, more individual attention to students. In her view, higher education had become massive and impersonal, following the sector's spectacular growth in the first decade of the 21st century. Between 2000 and 2010, against all expectations, Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences saw 180,000 more enrollments -- a growth of almost 40 percent -- bringing the total amount of students to 657,000.

Because the institutions' budgets did not grow at the same rate, the quality of education was compromised, as analysed by a committee called "Future-proof Higher Education" (Toekomstbestendig Hoger Onderwijs) in 2010. The think tank, led by former Miniter of Agriculture Cees Veerman, recommended serious efforts to be made to realise the ambition of turning the Netherlands into one of the strongest knowledge economies in the world. According to the committee, investing heavily in higher education was the remedy for the economic crisis, not to mention "a dire necessity given the years of underinvestment".

More intensive education
The second cabinet of Prime Minister Mark Rutte, which took office at the end of 2012, fully agreed with this analysis, but had also given itself the task of cutting 16 billion euros in government spending in order to emerge from the economic crisis. The money for the much-needed quality impulse therefore had to come from minister Bussemaker's education budget. And that's how the basic grant was axed.

But students were promised better education in return. Thanks to the abolishment of the grant, more teachers would be hired, which would result in fewer lectures in huge halls, more small-scale working groups, more individual feedback, more oral exams, and more intensive tutoring. "An important result of the reform policy is that the higher education system will get about four thousand extra lecturers and a few hundred more researchers with a teaching task", stated King Willem Alexander in a speech on September 15, 2015. "For students, this means more personal attention, more intensive tutoring and a better entrance to the job market".

Our research shows that those four thousand lecturers, tutors and study advisors have been hired. At the twelve largest universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, 2,055 full-time teaching jobs have been created since the introduction of the loan system, an increase of 13 percent. As for the country's thirteen universities, they have appointed 2,258 new lecturers, an increase of 20 percent. However, classes' size has not been reduced and students are not receiving more personal attention. Why?

When the loan system was introduced, student organisations and opposition parties warned that young people from lower income groups could be discouraged from pursuing a higher education degree out of fear of borrowing money. The Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences calculated that loan aversion would cost the universities of applied sciences 15,000 students, using a model of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis (CPB).

Despite these predictions, the number of students continued to grow since the introduction of the loan system. After a brief dip in 2015, enrolment surged again. In the 2019/2020 academic year, almost 770,000 students enrolled at Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences, over 67,000 more than in 2014. Last September, propelled by the corona crisis, the influx of students set new records again: more than eight hundred thousand students are enrolled this academic year.

The growth is largely accounted for by the thirteen universities: combined, they had almost fifty thousand more students in 2019 compared to 2014, a growth of 22 percent. The number of university students is increasing slightly faster than the number of lecturers, so the number of students per lecturer remains more or less the same. In short, there is certainly no sign of more personal attention being given to university students. On the contrary: at most universities, education is actually becoming more massive.

Seven of the country's thirteen universities are unable to keep up with the explosive growth in the number of students. Although they do hire more lecturers, the number of students per lecturer keeps increasing. Tilburg University is the most extreme case: the number of lecturers increased by 25 percent, but the number of students rose by 44 percent. As a result, the number of students per lecturer increased by more than 15 percent.

Who is a teacher and who is not?
How many lecturers does the Dutch higher education sector have? That's not as easy to determine as it may seem. The Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU in the Dutch acronym) counts professors, associate (senior) lecturers and other teaching positions among the teaching staff. These staff members usually not only teach, but also conduct research. How much time they spend on teaching is not registered.

Similar problems occur in the statistics provided by the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. Each of these institutions makes their own distinction between teaching and support staff, which means that the teacher-student ratios aren't always comparable. Moreover, only teaching staff with an employment contract are counted. Since the universities of applied sciences have employed many flex lecturers in recent years, the numbers may give a distorted impression.

At only four of the thirteen universities the promised intensification of education seems to have come to pass, of which Utrecht University stands out: at UU, the number of students per lecturer has decreased by more than 18 percent. That's not because the University appointed more new lecturers than the other universities, but rather because student growth was limited to seven percent.

Universities of applied sciences hardly grow
At the twelve universities of applied sciences surveyed, the number of students per lecturer decreased by more than eight percent between 2014 and 2019. That's mainly due to the modest student growth of 3.3 percent. Four of them saw the number of students decrease and at two it remained more or less the same. As a result, these six schools did not even need to appoint extra lecturers to improve their lecturer-student ratio.

Of the six universities of applied sciences that did grow, only half managed to recruit enough lecturers to improve their lecturer-student ratio. At Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, where the number of students grew the fastest at 21.5 percent, the number of students per lecturer actually increased by almost 10 percent. At Saxion, the number of lecturers decreased while the number of students increased, which means that the number of students per lecturer rose by approximately 8 percent.

Education has therefore become more massive and impersonal, rather than small-scale and intensive -- and the politicians who sacrificed the basic grant to improve the quality of education could have seen this coming. The Veerman Commission, which in 2010 urged extra investments in higher education, also recommended phasing out student-based grants as the system "encourages bringing in as many students as possible and leads institutions to tempt students with fancy fields of study and to prioritise quantity over quality", the think tank argued.

"The funding system is very sneaky", says Leiden historian Pieter Slaman, author of In de regel vrij, 100 jaar politiek rond onderwijs, cultuur en wetenschap ("Free on paper: 100 years of politics around education, culture and science") that was launched on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Ministry of Education in 2018. "Since the 1980s, money for higher education has been distributed on the basis of the number of students and the number of diplomas. But the budget is fixed in advance, so if your competitor grows, you have to grow with them. If you don't, your income will fall. Standing still is going backwards in a growing market, where you are competing for the same amount of money".

Downward spiral
The resulting fierce competition causes the number of students to grow year after year. The education budget is also growing, but not enough to maintain the amount that universities of applied sciences receive per student. To prevent their incomes from falling, institutions have to recruit more students, which means the budget is spread over even more students.

Performance agreements
In 2012, higher education institutions signed so-called performance agreements with the Ministry of Education, looking to reduce the number of dropouts, increase the number of contact hours for first-year students, increase participation in honours programmes, raise lecturers' qualification levels, and reduce their overhead. Institutions decided for themselves how high they wanted to set the bar. The minister could withhold seven percent of an insitution's education budget if the performance targets were not achieved in four years.

The universities kept their promises to a reasonable degree, but 30 of the 36 universities of applied sciences did not manage to achieve their study success goals. Six universities of applied sciences ultimately received a fail mark from the review committee that assessed the final results. After much wrangling, including the threat of legal action by one university of applied sciences, minister Bussemaker halved their fine. Her explanation was that she did not want students to bear the brunt of the budget cuts.

In order to break this downward spiral, the Veerman Committee recommended gradually replacing student-based funding with funding based on educational performance. The performance agreements were introduced in 2012. However, universities of applied sciences found the experiment, in which they were judged after four years on matters such as improvements in study success or the number of contact hours, absolutely unacceptable.

"They felt as though they were being held accountable for too much. The discussions were always about too much government control", recollects Stefan Wirken from his time as LSVb president. "The institutions wanted the government to trust them more, which is why they did not determine in advance how the money freed up by the abolishment of the basic grant should be spent. That money should have been designated, of course. We could, for instance, have agreed that only additional teachers were to be hired".

Without the performance agreements, the millions freed up by the basic grant were distributed just like the rest of the education budget: on the basis of student numbers. As a result, the fierce competition that the Veerman Commission wanted to do away with simply went on. In this battle, the universities are gaining ground on the universities of applied sciences. They have gradually managed to attract almost all Dutch students who qualify for either a university of applied sciences or a university when they graduate from high school. In the 1990s, universities of applied sciences were still an attractive option for those students, especially if they had a more practical mindset, not looking to have an academic career. 

The growth in the number of students enrolled at universities is only partly due to the increase in the number of Dutch high school graduates qualified to follow a university route. "The growth spurt of the past few years is mainly due to the flight to internationalisation", Slaman declares. The figures prove him right. The battle for more students has moved abroad: since 2002, the number of international students enrolled at Dutch higher education institutions has increased almost tenfold. Each year, international enrollment increases by about 15 percent. Around 2010, the growth curve seemed to level off, but since 2014, the number of foreign students has begun a new spurt that showed no signs of slowing down this academic year, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

In 2019, more than 62,000 international students were enrolled at Dutch universities, double the number registered in 2014, the year before the basic grant was abolished. One in five university students is now from abroad. Of those, 70 percent come from an EU country, which means that they have the same rights as Dutch students and are therefore included in the distribution of the education budget and the basic grant millions.

At universities of applied sciences, the number of international students is growing significantly slower. Almost 32,000 foreign students were enrolled in that type of institution in 2019, seven percent of the total. This academic year, the influx from abroad dropped for the first time in five years. It's not that universities of applied sciences are not fighting for every student. It's just more difficult for them to market themselves on the international market, compared to universities, which are all ranked among the world's best 250 universities in international rankings.

Thanks to their increasingly broad range of English-language courses, and with the help of commercial recruiters who cleverly tap into new markets, Dutch universities now play a significant role in the international market, where Anglo-Saxon countries such as the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom dominate. Dutch universities like to present their increasing relevance in in the international market as proof of the quality of their education, but in reality the influx from abroad only makes the budget per student smaller. "We are spreading the money over more and more students, and in doing so we are undermining education", concludes Slaman.

It is even more ironic that the basic grant millions that were intended to stop this erosion are being used to develop English-language programmes to recruit even more foreign students. After all, the University of Amsterdam is not the only university that has used pre-investments to start expensive, small-scale study programmes such as Politics, Psychology, Law & Economics.

Soon after its launch, the VU (Vrije Universiteit) introduced a counterpart to PPLE called Philosophy, Politics & Economics (PPE), and the University of Twente pumped part of the pre-investments into the University College for Technology, Liberal Arts & Sciences, abbreviated to ATLAS. The University of Groningen reserved five million euros of the pre-investments to develop new English-language master's programmes, while Radboud University put a few million of the pre-investments into "internationalisation, master's inflow and scholarships".

But the initial costs are not all, of course. To teach this influx of foreign students, they need not only extra lecturers, but also new, larger lecture halls, and lots of places to study at the libraries, not to mention student housing. The basic grant millions come in handy here.

Endless market
Historian Pieter Slaman observes this phenomenon with concern. 'When the funding system was devised, the universities were still competing in a defined market. With the introduction of the Bachelor's/Master's system, the foreign market was thrown open and now there are no boundaries. Where does it end?"

'When the basic grant was abolished, students were told they would get better education in return. That is a nice frame, but in the five years we have spent discussing whether that money is being well spent, tens of thousands of students have joined our institutions and education has been eroded even further. It would help if universities would stop recruiting an evergrowing number of international students. But I don't dare advise our rector to be the first to do so, otherwise the university would lose the competition".

With the collaboration of Altan Erdogan, Laura ter Steege and Henk Strikkers. This article is part of a series of research stories about the abolishment of the basic student grant and the introduction of the loan system in the Netherlands. It was made possible by the Stimulation Fund for Journalism and several editorial boards at universities and universities of applied sciences.

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