Illustration: Rueben Millenaar

'It is saddening to see the games and the lack of vision in education politics’

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The millions of euros freed up by the abolishment of the basic student grant have evaporated for the most part, as this series of articles has demonstrated. How can we prevent the same from happening again in the future? Four higher education experts discuss five statements. 

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Our experts
Pim Breebaart is ex-manager, ex-supervisor and ex-chairman of the Association of Supervisors for Universities of Applied Sciences.

Student Alex Tess Rutten studies Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam and is the former chairperson of the National Student Union, as well as ex-student council member at the University of Amsterdam.

Lecturer Jeroen Janssen is Associate Professor of Education and Pedagogy at Utrecht University.

Senior lecturer Ellen Klatter is lector of Study Success at the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences.

It is a pity that the discussion couldn't take place face to face, but this is how things go now at universities and universities of applied sciences: for more than a year, talks, discussions and presentations happen online. So, student Alex Tess Rutten, lecturer Ellen Klatter, supervisor Pim Breebaart, and lecturer Jeroen Janssen met on Zoom.

Based on the findings of our journalist research, the four experts debated about political promises, the millions freed up by the death of the basic grant, how to measure the quality of education, and the role of employee participation in higher education. We started with a statement about politics.

1. Mark Rutte's second cabinet should never have promised students better education in exchange for them surrendering their basic grant.

Ellen Klatter: "Intuitively, I find that a minister should promise this, but in practice universities and universities of applied sciences have a tremendous amount of authority. Therefore, the government can’t guarantee very much. What I have noticed at many universities of applied sciences, is that they don’t try to find out what the bottleneck is. I would like the government to invest more in the investigative attitude of lecturers and managers and in powerful expert education leadership. Many directors manage by spreadsheet rather than content. Which vision are we developing? And how do we get there? It is fascinating how little knowledge there is about that".

Pim Breebaart: "Regardless of what the minister says about the quality of education, she ultimately has very little say. Boards in the higher education sector are quite autonomous in how they provide education, something that has been fixed since 1993 in the Higher Education and Academic Research Act, which lays down the rules for the setup of universities and universities of applied sciences. You need to be sceptical about a minister who promises better higher education.

That negotiation process in 2015 was very strange: the minister negotiated over the heads of the institutes directly with the students. Also, the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU) and the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, who also signed, have no power to overrule. The decision authority lies in the hands of the separate boards, but they weren’t included in the negotiations.

Ultimately, a team of lecturers and involved students from a given study programme have the greatest say in the quality of said programme. Certainly not the Minister of Education or the Parliament".

Jeroen Janssen: "I also agree with the statement, although there are some places where a lot of thought is being put into what should happen with that money. But you can’t make such a promise on a national level. In the first years, it was a drop in the ocean. In the meantime, it has become a substantial amount, and you see that we can invest in employing personnel. I am curious to find out what this means for the quality of education in the long term. How do you show that the quality of education has improved? The initial reflex is to put it into spreadsheets, which makes me very sad."

Alex Tess Rutten: "What I really object to is that, by making this promise, the Minister of Education back then, Jet Bussemaker, has linked two very different things: the quality of education and the discussion about student financing. We still notice that. Last year, we joined forces with the Dutch Student Union (LSVb) on a campaign  against the lending system, and we were asked: “Are you against more money going towards the quality of education?” No, of course not. Those are two separate things. They have been linked in a strange way, which means that you can no longer discuss each subject on its own. Politically, it was a clever move, but for a pure discussion, you should separate them".

Pim Breebaart: "Not enough research is done on the effectiveness of all kinds of education policies. In the 1990s, for example, universities of applied sciences introduced study career guidance in their curricula. I don’t hear a lot of students saying: 'I learned a lot from that study career guidance'. Yet, the methodology has remained. It is an example of how institutions can cling on to things, instead of carrying out a thorough investigation into whether something is effective or if it could be done differently".

Ellen Klatter: "I feel that we should look for quality in the so-called primary process: in the classroom or the lecture hall. Set an objective, think about how you want to achieve it and afterwards check whether you managed to get there. It is possible during the lesson or a lecture. But if we want to determine this at a somewhat higher level, for example within an institution or within a faculty, this suddenly no longer happens".

2. It was unfair to give students such a large role in determining the way the basic grant millions would be spent.

Alex Tess Rutten: "Students are experts in the field, so you have to include them. That's why the student unions rallied for this. At the same time, students have a huge deficiency compared to the boards when it comes to knowledge and time. Unfortunately, since the introduction of the loan system, the quality of employee and student participation has deteriorated. I currently give training to student councils and the decline in quality is visible. Students willing to take a year off to do that job have become an exception. Moreover, because of the loan system, students hardly want to spend more than a year on council membership.

When I was a member of the faculty council in my first year, I had no idea what was happening. Last year, the National Youth Council carried out an investigation and found out that 86 per cent of the student board members in the Netherlands can only do it because they get financial support from their parents, which also makes the composition of the councils rather one-sided.

On top of that, there are the cuts being made in higher education. Does it have any effect if you set up a blended-learning project on the one hand, while on the other hand you have to create larger working groups because basic funding is deteriorating? As a student, can you see through such issues?"

Jeroen Janssen: "I understand what Alex is saying, about participation at a central level being complicated. We have organised study programme committees locally, which are very close to the programmes. Students were able to collaborate with us about where the money should go. That had to be done: after all, it was their money".

Ellen Klatter: "Our representative advisory council in Rotterdam is very involved. An initiative was launched under the heading 'What to do with 26 million?'. That attracted a lot of students. What is difficult, though, is the fact that students can often identify and say what is not going well, but they can’t assess very well whether the education process is sound. Of course, they are not education experts".

Pim Breebaart: "At all 53 institutions visited by the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO in the Dutch acronym) panels, students said that they are sufficiently involved in the plans. That happens through discussions in the councils, but also by having meetings at universities of applied sciences, where everyone can participate in the discussion. In 2018, many managers said they felt that this was the most difficult part of the national agreements, but in practice the NVAO panels have not noticed that students have been pushed aside".

Alex Tess Rutten: "Well, my experience as a student in NVAO panels is that it is unbelievably tough to estimate in such a meeting how involved students really are. I am critical and not shy about speaking out, but I would also be positive about a plan that I had worked on together with the board if a panel came to visit. You also want to bring in that money for your institution. Students have a weird role. Having a pleasant discussion doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a strong representative body or that things went well".

Because of my job as a trainer of representative councils, I visit all kinds of universities and universities of applied sciences, from study programme committees to central councils. And I hear managers gushing about the quality of their representative councils, while I know for a fact they are not that great. Then it turns out that basic conditions on the right to be informed, requests for approval and terms are not in order. You can have a nice talk then, but that’s all it is".

3. Creating and assessing quality plans has led to a superfluous circus that provides no guarantee for better education.

Jeroen Janssen: "My experience is that it tends to quickly become a bureaucratic monster. It’s about how many lecturers you have appointed or about professionalisation and how many courses have been taken. You can hang all kinds of parameters on it, but this often distracts from the primary process.

We still have a bellyache from the last time we had to make this kind of agreements (the so-called performance agreements, ed.) We had to accurately specify down to decimals how much education we had provided and what it looked like. To sum up, a nightmare. That cost a great deal of time, energy and frustration. There is, at least at universities, a lot of resistance to these kinds of processes. I also don’t know if it ultimately yielded anything useful for the quality of education".

Ellen Klatter: "I do think that it's a good thing to have a quality mark for expert panels. It forces you to write things down and think about them. But I can imagine what your experience was like, Jeroen. Our university of applied sciences had its first report with plans rejected. It continues to be an awful lot of process language, and then the question is: why do we do things this way?

Take the question of appointing extra lecturers. Of course, we want them, but what happens in the meantime to the lecturers who are already there? Are they going to be trained so that the quality of education really improves, or are they complemented with all kinds of lateral entry colleagues who aren’t actually lecturers? Does this lead to the improvements we desire?"

Pim Breebaart and Alex Tess Rutten both have a position within the NVAO panels currently checking the quality agreements. How can they actually evaluate whether the quality of education has improved?

Pim Breebaart: "I recognise what Jeroen and Ellen say. There is undoubtedly bureaucracy mixed up in it, it is almost inevitable. Don’t forget that the minister, the Parliament and the institutions also speak in process language, which makes it difficult for a visiting NVAO panel to check if the quality of education really has improved.

In addition, communication in 2018 was not as it should be. VSNU and the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences had had enough of the performance agreements, and publicly stated: 'never again'. That was understandable, but it forced the minister to do something else, so the idea of employing NVAO panels came about.

In my opinion, NVAO and its panels implemented the national agreements with as much integrity as possible. But I am the first to admit that it was not until the middle of 2019, when it turned out that many plans by universities of applied sciences were classified as “insufficient”, that NVAO sent a letter explaining more clearly what was expected of them. That should have happened sooner".

Alex Tess Rutten: "I also had a problem with those documents full of process language. I mostly checked smaller universities of applied sciences, the ones with two thousand students or less. There is something wrong there: the University of Amsterdam, with 39 thousand students, has to jump through the same hoops as a university of applied sciences with 1.5 FTE policy advisers. That was painful to see. By the way, it wasn’t just the plans from the smaller universities of applied sciences that were rejected.

Some institutions received money through the quality agreements and, at the same time, they heard from the minister that they had to do with less money because of the Van Rijn committee report. What effect does that have on the discussion you have there as a panel? That caused a lot of discomfort: we do everything in our power and, in the end, we don’t get anything extra.

4. All the basic grant money should have gone into appointing extra lecturers.

Ellen Klatter: "No. Because first you have to come up with a good solid analysis of the current education system. Tremendous strides can be made in this area. Curriculum improvement, and policies on exams could be much better. A lot can be done to improve the quality of the current teaching staff. Adding a whole group of new lecturers requires a lot of training capacity, while training is not even as it should be at the moment. Back to basics, I would say".

Jeroen Janssen: "‘If you ask me whether I want more lecturers, obviously I would say yes. Nevertheless, I don’t agree with the statement. Of course the shortage of money that universities have has led to overworked lecturers, but there is much more going on. Ellen is right: we really need to do something about the professionalisation of new and existing lecturers. There is a lot to be gained there, just like with the improvement of the curriculum".

Pim Breebaart: "My answer would also be a resolute no. At universities of applied sciences, sketchy knowledge levels, insufficient study skills and students' lack of focus are sometimes a greater problem than the number of lecturers. Many students from lower-income families live at home, so they often feel the need to perform household duties and sometimes have two to three student jobs simultaneously. This makes social integration into the university of applied sciences all the more difficult, and it obstructs their study progress. A lot of the quality of education is eliminated by the financial situation of this group of students. Such a shame. The situation is even worse in the Covid-19 pandemic".

Alex Tess Rutten: "I would like to say yes to this statement because I wonder to what extent all the money that goes to central policies at the larger universities and universities of applied sciences yields effective results on the work floor. In recent years, education has been stripped to an increasing degree.

It's true that it doesn’t help when you blindly give lecturers two additional hours. At the same time, the results of student papers, for example, show that halving the number of contact hours has not improved matters. You need real space in your head to be able to develop as a lecturer, and to be able to reflect. If I look at my own lecturers, they don’t have that, it is mere survival".

Ellen Klatter: "Work pressure is indeed very high. By way of experiment, we started a programme from scratch, where lecturers took the lead. They told their managers what was the best thing to do, provided that they were able to justify it. Ultimately, they worked more hours, both for themselves and for the students, but they experienced less work pressure and work satisfaction was higher".

5. Abolishing the basic grant would not have been necessary if the increase in the number of students had been halted on time.

Alex Tess Rutten: "I don’t know if that's the case. We still have a fairly accessible education system, but it is increasingly coming under pressure. Investments in education create a minus when the effects of election programmes are calculated, while everyone knows that it yields a plus in the long term. That’s a bigger problem".

Jeroen Janssen: "Within our university, we are one of the few study programmes to remain reasonably constant. The growth of student numbers does indeed create pressure. We feel that accessibility for everyone is important, and if you agree with this statement, that's what's coming under pressure. That should not be the direction to take. I do indeed feel that the government fails in all areas and levels to invest in education".

Pim Breebaart: "I don’t see much proof of the relation between there being a basic grant or not, and the growth of higher education. The growth in the number of students has much more to do with demographics and social developments. Many young people want to be highly educated at all cost. That has very little to do with student financing".

Ellen Klatter: "Our university of applied sciences had 35,000 students in 2015 and almost 40,000 in 2019. We need more money accordingly. I also find it distressing that the Netherlands scores rather low when it comes to investments in higher education and research. Curiously, we consider the theme of “the Netherlands as a knowledge economy” of paramount importance, but we don’t invest a lot in it. Everyone is wrung out to work even more efficiently and even more effectively. Grass doesn’t grow any faster just because you pull harder at it, but it does if you give it the proper nourishment. That applies to students, but also to lecturers and researchers".

Jeroen Janssen: "Even following educational politics a little, one is saddened by the quality, the games that are played, and the lack of continuity and vision. You see the same happening with the growing number of students. We are elaborating on all kinds of plans but there is a pretty good chance that we will have to soon stop doing so again. This kind of ad hoc politics is pitiful, and for people in education it is very demotivating".

Pim Breebaart: "Of course it's crazy. NVAO is almost done with the assessment of the quality agreements and we know that, after the elections, it is most likely that a large majority in Parliament will be in favour of the re-introduction of the basic grant. But because no specific objective has been formulated for the basic grant, I guarantee that things will go wrong again. Mark my words".

Alex Tess Rutten: "Vulnerable students from lower socioeconomic groups suffer disproportionately more from the loan system. At universities of applied sciences, a large number of students work more than should be possible when you are a full-time student. More and more young people have a difficult start in life, also because of the housing market and the flexible labour market. Then add Covid-19 to that. Here lies a tremendous challenge in which education and politics can play an important role".

With the co-operation of Yvonne van de Meent and Laura ter Steege. This story is the fourth and last part of a series that was partly made possible by the Incentives fund for Journalism and various editorial boards at universities and universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands.

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