Dutch parliament warms up for a battle on the binding study advice

Political parties big and small have inquired the minister about the necessity and use of the binding study advice (BSA), a mechanism forcing first-year students who have not earned enough credits to drop out of their programmes. Van Engelshoven has answered all the questions, but since she is in the role in a caretaker capacity, there isn't much she can change now.

The point, therefore, is how the parties and the minister position themselves. What do they propose, what are their considerations? 

Succeeding in your studies
VVD sees no problem with the BSA, as the liberals find that the requirement to earn a certain number of credits (sometimes even all possible credits: 60 ECTS) leads students to succeed in their programme. They also think that the BSA allows students to quickly know what they're going for and whether the study programme they're enroled in is indeed the best choice for them.

Van Engelshoven doesn't endorse this view entirely. According to the minister, the BSA must exist alongside "sufficient guidance, advice and other supportive policy." That doesn't always happen, which leads to unnecessary interruptions. 

Van Engelshoven's party, D66, is sceptical about the BSA. They believe that, when you kick a student out of a study programme, you must tell them where they should go instead. They call that the "referring function of the BSA." But that rarely ever happens, a study reveals. Therefore, D66 would like to know if it can "be concluded that the BSA, as we know it, works properly"

The minister is happy to admit this, as she does have reservations about the BSA. She has tried to set the bar lower, but had to let go of that ambition once she encountered fierce opposition from the House of Representatives.

Van Engelshoven thinks that there are much better options, such as the "flow standard" that some universities of applied sciences have been experimenting with. According to that standard, students do not need to quit the programme. Instead, they're allowed to continue on to the second year, as long as they meet the standard at some point. That would be a good alternative to the current BSA, defends the minister.

Wrong decision
The umbrella organisations representing higher education institutions in the Netherlands think differently. They don't mind experimenting, but would like to keep having the prerogative to kick out the freshmen who do not earn enough credits. A softer "flow standard", as proposed by the minister, would lead study programmes to spend "too much time guiding students who made the wrong choice of study or that are simply not suited for the programme," argued the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU in the Dutch acronym).

The question is whether the universities will continue to have most politicians on their side. The governmental policy could become stricter. Political party CDA points to professional vocacional education (known in Dutch as the MBO system) as a cautionary tale. They have recently adopted the BSA, but institutions are obligated to refer expelled students to another programme.

Van Engelshoven didn't say "no" to this proposal right away. A report on the MBO's experience with the BSA is coming soon, letting us know whether the measure works well or not, although the Covid-19 pandemic has probably influenced the results. In any case, the minister is set to work together with the universities and universities of applied sciences to see if "it is desirable to adopt the referring function in the higher education sector as well."

However, it's rather hard to know whether the study programmes have made the right recommendations to the expelled students, as privacy laws keep them from following their next steps. Therefore, there's no way to know if this way of working is effective.

Other political parties, including SP, GroenLinks, ChristenUnie, SGP, Volt and JA21, also posed questions to the minister. This is not the first time the members of parliament discuss the BSA. Last year, they seemed to be interested in doing away with it, but then a motion arguing that it should stay was backed by a majority of MPs a month later.

Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic makes for a "natural policy experiment", in the words of D66, as the BSA has been softened during the crisis. The number of students dropping out of college in their first year has diminished because of that measure. It's going to be interesting to see what is going to happen to those students, admits the minister.