Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf on science, education and his own future

'Should the young people of the future be allowed to study whatever they want?'

Robbert Dijkgraaf. Foto: Ministerie van Onderwijs
Robbert Dijkgraaf launches his Foresight Study. Photos: Ministry of Education

As far as he was concerned, there was no need for the cabinet to resign, states the outgoing Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66). “I still very much regret that it happened.” Now serving in a caretaker capacity, he is no longer able to introduce any new policy as that’s the prerogative of the parties that will govern after the elections.

Nevertheless, his long-awaited Foresight Study was published earlier this week. In the document, researchers take a closer look at the uncertain future of the three kinds of higher education in the Netherlands and outline three possible paths, arguing that future policymakers will have to choose between focusing on the labour market, societal issues or the freedom of individuals.

Wrong signal
“The cabinet’s resignation is a defeat”, says Dijkgraaf in his office in The Hague. “Everywhere in society, we ask people to work things out together, including in education. It’s part of the Dutch polder model, which consists of making an effort to reach a consensus. And then you’ve got a cabinet that says it can’t find common ground. In my opinion, that just sends the wrong signal.”

Migration was the stumbling block that brought down the government, an issue that partly overlaps with Dijkgraaf’s own portfolio, namely higher education. After preparing a bill to control the influx of international students – which has even been published online to collect feedback – he was unable to make a decision on tuition fees for refugees.

As a result, Dijkgraaf could occasionally be seen biting his tongue, unable to speak his mind. Migration seemed to be a difficult issue for him to navigate. “You’re right”, he admits. “The discussion on migration also affects education because of international students, refugees or people who have been displaced because of the war in Ukraine. The scale may be smaller, but that doesn’t make things any less complicated. It’s always a bit of a balancing act.”

Universities are currently under pressure due to high number of enrolments, which is contributing to the housing shortage. At the same time, Dijkgraaf stresses that international students are of great value to the Netherlands. “Besides, when it comes to some students, there are humanitarian factors to consider: we also want the Netherlands to be a safe haven for people who need help.”

Foresight Study
But this week, his main focus is on the Foresight Study he sent to the House of Representatives. How influential will the document be moving forward? He acknowledges that things are not working out the way he had hoped.

“This should have been the first stage of a rocket, propelled by ideas collected from the sector – we were explicit about not wanting them to be my ideas, or the ministry’s ideas, or the coalition’s ideas. It was important to us to give everyone in the sector a chance to share their thoughts, which were then analysed by independent researchers to identify commonalities. That's why this report doesn’t say: 'do this and that.' The second stage of the rocket is the part where you start making choices.”

But now that part is out of his hands, he writes in a letter to the House of Representatives, in which mainly summarises the topics that seem urgent to him, as well as the choices policymakers will be faced with. More detailed information on funding changes and other possible interventions will be shared later to help make discussions more concrete.

Robbert Dijkgraaf. Foto: Ministerie van Onderwijs

Freedom of choice
The biggest dilemma seems to be how to balance students’ freedom of choice with the needs of society at large. “Education has triple word value, like in Scrabble”, compares Dijkgraaf. “It’s good for the economy, good for society and good for individuals.”

But sometimes, what benefits the collective can be at odds with personal freedom. If society needs teachers, nurses and engineers, how do you get students to choose those fields? “An important fact to take into account is that there will soon be more jobs than people”, Dijkgraaf notes. “We’re probably about to enter a period of structural labour shortages. Then the question becomes: Should we still allow young people to choose their own careers? Or would we rather channel their freedom of choice?”

This is not an entirely new dilemma. Medicine programmes, for instance, have been restricting enrolments for a long time. But Dijkgraaf believes there is a difference. “Medicine is a popular programme that’s also very expensive, which is why we align the number of available spots each year with the number of doctors we need. But we’re not limiting enrolment in Medicine programmes to get more people to pursue, say, a Physics degree.”

If that were to be the government's intention, it would have to institute enrolment caps for programmes that do not cater to sectors facing labour shortages. But Dijkgraaf does not see this happening any time soon. “In general, I think that discussion is more relevant when it comes to vocational education (MBO).” The minister believes that MBO students may need to be discouraged from making choices that will hurt their chances of finding employment, as they are more vulnerable than higher education graduates.

One in seven students
But universities also seem keen on restricting students’ freedom of choice. Recently, Elmer Sterlken, a former rector of Groningen University, estimated that roughly 15 percent of students at research universities (WO) would be better off at a university of applied sciences (HBO). Universities are also calling for more stable funding, as this would allow them to admit fewer students.

That would mean selecting at the gate, but that’s another subject Dijkgraaf is hesitant to comment on. He says the main challenge is to help students discover where they belong. “You can also create more flexible learning pathways, to make it a bit easier for students to switch programmes. Then, if someone’s not successful in one form of education, there’s a proper way for them to make that transition.”

He warns that one has to be careful when it comes to making big changes because the current higher education system is easily accessible while also offering quality and good job prospects. “Some people call it a ‘trilemma’, which suggests those three elements cannot go hand in hand, but that is not true at all. One of the great things about our education system is that the right secondary school diploma should, in principle, offer access to vocational colleges, universities of applied sciences and research universities.”

Educational fan
This brings Dijkgraaf to one of his favourite topics, the ‘educational fan’. According to the Minister, vocational colleges, universities of applied sciences and research universities should be visualised side by side, like a fan. Many people see them as a hierarchy but Dijkgraaf stresses that they need to stop thinking like that.

Some might say that's empty rhetoric. After all, as long as doctors earn more than nurses, we can hardly blame parents preferring their to get into a university or university of applied sciences.

“Ultimately, the salaries aren’t the same”, Dijkgraaf says. “That’s true. But that’s the case among university graduates as well. A banker or dentist earns more than an entry-level teacher. So there are big differences. But there are also vocational programmes that produce graduates who end up earning more than some people with a university diploma. It’s about students finding their place in the world and becoming the best version of themselves. They shouldn't feel as though succeeding at that will be somehow be seen by others as a failure.”

Robbert Dijkgraaf. Foto: Ministerie van Onderwijs

Changes at universities of applied sciences
While universities are struggling to accommodate the influx of new students, universities of applied sciences expect to see a slump when it comes to the number of enrolments. Wouldn’t it make sense to introduce a new kind of university to bridge the gap between the two and offer a more attractive proposition to VWO graduates?

“I’m not going to share my personal opinion”, Dijkgraaf replies, referring to his caretaker status, “but these kinds of variants are suggested in the Foresight Study.” At the same time, the minister stresses that the report also points to the considerable diversity within Dutch higher education. These variants could be developed within the existing institutions, just as one could expand the secondary vocational education system to accommodate practical research.

The current cabinet is already laying the groundwork for this, informs the Minister. “We have allocated a yearly budget of 100 million euros to practice-based research at universities of applied sciences. That’s a huge amount when you consider that we practically started from scratch.”

During the course of the conversation, Dijkgraaf repeatedly underlines what the cabinet has achieved and what is at stake in the elections. “This government has made huge investments in education and research. There’s really been a major course correction. We reinstated the basic student grant, which promotes equal opportunities in education, and our sector plans for science have allowed universities to create 1,200 permanent positions. We've also established starting and incentive grants that make it easier for young scientists to get a permanent contract and then access the resources they need to shape their own research.”

Will all that work be undone if the wrong parties get their way in the upcoming elections? “The way I see it, these are all little seedlings that we’ve planted, which are beginning to sprout. These really are long-term investments. In the end, there will be major benefits for the Netherlands in terms of innovation – finding smarter and better ways to meet society's biggest challenges. My largest concern is that we don’t give these plans the opportunity to come to fruition.”

Small, medium, large
The Foresight Study is supposed to be neutral, but it does present three options. Asked whether such a format doesn’t make the middle option seem the most sensible, Dijkgraaf smiles. “It’s true that ministers are often presented with three possible variants by their staff: small, medium and large. They’re usually inclined to go for medium. Small and large are often just there as a formality.”

But he believes that’s not the case when it comes to the Foresight Study. “People will make choices and highlight certain aspects based on their political beliefs. But the big question is: how can we accommodate all the potential we have in the Netherlands? We’re totally dependent on people who are trained to address the major challenges we face as a society, which is why I often talk about the equality of all forms of education, from vocational schools to research universities. After all, we need everyone. But if you take all those challenges into consideration... Yes, you do end up choosing the medium variant.”

That’s what Dijkgraaf hopes, at least. It’s election season, which means that parties are mostly talking about all the things they would do if they were in power. “But no party is going to get an absolute majority”, Dijkgraaf predicts. “Ultimately, the question is: how are we going to address these issues together? Politics is about the art of give and take, it's about trying to reach a compromise. The big win is finding a way to move forward.”

In fact, these are the moments Dijkgraaf appreciates in politics: when a tortuous process results in a bill or spending decision. “Take those big investments in scientific research, for example. We actually made those happen. The same goes for reinstituting the basic student grant: that law was published in the Government Gazette. It’s all very frustrating and complicated, but there comes a point where you can actually make a difference.”

Black magic
Before Dijkgraaf was sworn in as the Minister of Education, he never thought he would end up in politics. Back when he was the president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, he stated that he considered politics a kind of black magic. "In Physics, if you press a button, you know exactly which light will be turned on. In politics, you press a button and a bell is going to ring somewhere but you don’t know where or when."

Asked whether his views on politics have since changed, he replies: “Sure. Things do work differently than they do in science, but once you’re inside that ‘black box’ yourself, you get to see all the intricate circuitry. You need public support, you need to convince your fellow cabinet members, then the House of Representatives and the Senate, and sometimes the Council of State will get involved as well. So, now I do appreciate why things often take a long time in politics. There is a current running through that whole chain, and the light only comes on when all the circuits are connected.”

Should the opportunity arise, would he be open to a second term as minister? Dijkgraaf hesitates. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do next. But I’ve taken various steps over the course of my career and I see them all as different chapters in a book. This role, in this cabinet, is one such chapter. So, first I'm going to think about how I would like to close this chapter and then we’ll see what comes next. I’ve devoted my whole life to teaching and research and I will continue to do so. I just don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.”

Interview by Bas Belleman (HOP)