Internationalisation is the hot potato
Elections: what is at stake for higher education?
These are tense times in the world of Dutch politics. If the signs are to be believed, the coalition parties are likely to lose ground in the Senate (see text box). And they already have a minority there.
The government parties VVD, D66, CDA and ChristenUnie currently hold 32 of the 75 seats in the Senate. So to navigate a bill through the Senate, some of the opposition have to vote with the coalition.
In the case of controversial bills, the six votes required can come from the right (e.g. PVV and SGP) or from the left (e.g. PvdA). But what happens if the coalition loses seats? That could prove difficult for the government – including in the field of higher education and research.
Basic student grant
Some things will go ahead as planned. For instance, the government is working on the return of the basic student grant as of September 2023. Virtually all parties are behind it, apart from VVD. And even that party will not torpedo the plans, because it is a member of the government.
So is there no criticism of the government’s plans for student financing? Yes, there is, because some parties feel the grant is not generous enough and they also think that the compensation for students under the student loan system is too meagre. But those objections are probably not so serious as to delay the bill, which is due to pass into law before the summer.
The most politically sensitive topic is internationalisation. In February, Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf will put forward his plans to better control the influx of international students. There is plenty of speculation about them – better distribution throughout the country, for example, or a new role for the universities of applied sciences – but whatever the outcome, the minister apparently does not intend to build a wall around higher education in the Netherlands.
His predecessor had already submitted a bill about the language of instruction and internationalisation (‘Language and accessibility’). Educational programmes ought to get more opportunities to limit the influx of foreign students. But after the collapse of the previous government in January 2021, the Senate put that bill on hold. The senators obviously consider the topic important.
Some parties would prefer the universities to give predominantly Dutch-language instruction again, even if only in Bachelor’s programmes. It would be good for the Dutch language, and the number of foreign students would naturally decline. Other parties are concerned in particular about accommodation: where are all those international students supposed to live, given that there is already a shortage of housing? They also bemoan the fact that in selection procedures for popular study programmes, Dutch prospective students face competition from large numbers of foreign students.
Dijkgraaf takes a different view of internationalisation. There are huge shortages in the labour market, so we can make good use of that foreign talent here. You shouldn’t look only at individual study programmes, he believes, but also at the interests of the Netherlands as a whole. Consequently, he has not yet progressed with his predecessor’s bill.
What will happen in the Senate if Dijkgraaf puts forward a bill of his own? The right-wing parties might find it too lenient and vote against it. Conversely, PvdA and GroenLinks, which are going to form an alliance in the Senate, might cause problems if they feel the restrictions go too far.
Grants in science
Minister Dijkgraaf has a lot of money at his disposal to spread across the academic world: hundreds of millions of euros. He made a promising start but is now encountering opposition. The fear is that his plan for ‘start-up and incentive grants’ for researchers could be counterproductive. Many of the departments would prefer to make their own decisions on how they spend money. But this is not the type of policy that is a contentious issue in the Senate and nobody wants to be responsible for a delay in the expenditure.
Selection and binding study advice
This is something for the future, but the coalition wants to tackle the binding study advice: students should be allowed more time to meet the required standard. It is not yet clear, however, how Dijkgraaf plans to address the issue.
Nor what the political support for it is. The PVV recently opposed the drawing of lots to get access to popular study programmes and does not want to see any changes to the binding study advice. The views of other right-wing parties are still a matter for conjecture.
The government can avert some of the problems surrounding political majorities by making ‘arrangements’ with the institutions. That is what happens with the sector plans, for instance. The universities set out their plans and the minister can approve them. He could also do something of the sort with the binding study advice. He would then not have to change the law in order to make the standard easier for students.
But that is probably not enough when it comes to internationalisation.
The upcoming elections
In principle, we elect the members of the House of Representatives every four years. For the Senate, on the other hand, there are ‘staggered elections’. We vote on 15 March for the Provincial Council. The chosen members then elect the Senate.
The House of Representatives has 150 seats, of which the coalition parties VVD, D66, CDA and ChristenUnie have 77. There are only 75 seats in the Senate, so 38 seats are needed for a majority. The coalition parties currently have only 32 of them.
In the most recent Peilingwijzer (‘Poll of Polls’), which combines several polls, the government is heading for a hefty loss. The four coalition parties are predicted to get between 30 and 38 percent of the votes, equating to 23 to 29 seats. That would make the Senate a serious hurdle to be jumped.