Robbert Dijkgraaf appointed new Minister of Education

Photo: Gabi Porter

Dijkgraaf (61) is best known to the general public as the physicist giving entertaining and accessible lectures in the talk show De Wereld Draait Door. For eighteen years, he also wrote columns for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

He obtained his doctorate cum laude under the supervision of Nobel Prize winner Gerard ’t Hooft in 1989, and later became a top scientist. Dijkgraaf was awarded the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands, and served as president of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. For the last ten years, he has been the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where Albert Einstein once worked.

He criticised the former cabinet harshly, by accusing it of “budget-neutral small-mindedness” when it shifted research funding from social sciences and humanities to the exact sciences and technology. “Have you ever given a present to a child by grabbing it from another one? Have fun with that!”

In the new government, Dijkgraaf doesn’t only have responsibility for higher education and research, but also for vocational education. His predecessor Ingrid van Engelshoven also had culture under her responsibility, but there will now be a secretary of state for that.

The media
Robbert Dijkgraaf is “perhaps the most remarkable member of the upcoming team of ministers”, according to newspaper De Volkskrant. “The surprising thing is not so much that party D66 approached him, but that Dijkgraaf accepted the offer.” 

Another newspaper, Trouw, calls him a “wonderboy” with a “sharp mind”, and an “appealing smarty-pants” who gives “charming” lectures on TV. The newspaper points to Dijkgraaf’s past criticism that there is too little opportunity for fundamental research in the Netherlands.

NRC Handelsblad, to which Dijkgraaf collaborated as a columnist for eighteen years, said: “With Dijkgraaf we now have a Minister of Education, Culture and Science who not only knows what’s going on at the universities, but also has a standpoint on it.” What's more, the new minister was “openly critical of his predecessor”.

Daily paper De Telegraaf is more sparing in its praise, placing Dijkgraaf among the ministers “who are less familiar with Dutch national politics”. The newspaper characterises him as “yet another technocrat” of D66, alongside “hospital bed-planner” Ernst Kuijpers, the new Minister of Health.

Public broadcasting service NOS calls him “one of the big newcomers”. According to NOS, in its search for a new impetus, D66 has found an “outsider” in Dijkgraaf. However, it's “not unthinkable” that the new minister will be subject to criticism himself, for example when introducing a new basic student grant.

In the weekly magazine Elsevier, columnist Geerten Waling says Dijkgraaf is “the most celebrated member” of the new government. “The expectations are high, certainly because he is fully capable of allowing Dutch science to excel again, making it more accessible and freeing it from the ‘woke’ stranglehold.”

For nearly ten years, Dijkgraaf was the director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. His appointment as minister has filled the institute with “great pride”, says the chair of the Board of Trustees.

“We are deeply thankful to Robbert for his extraordinary leadership during his ten-year tenure and wish him continued success in this new role”, he adds. “Our community will miss Robbert, Pia and their family very much.” Dijkgraaf is married to novelist and columnist Pia de Jong.

Pressure groups
Protest group WOinActie was delighted about the appointment. They tweeted: “Fantastic news that Dijkgraaf is the new Minister of Education, Culture and Science! At #WOinActie we have high hopes that there will finally be adequate solutions for the problems in university education.”

Others were less forthcoming, perhaps also because of the Christmas holidays. The reactions didn’t extend much further than a few retweets by Pieter Duisenberg, chairperson of Universities in the Netherlands. He retweeted Dijkgraaf’s own tweets about his quarantine upon arrival from the USA.

But universities, trade unions and activists generally welcomed the coalition agreement that has resulted in Dijkgraaf’s appointment. On a joint website, they say they are looking forward to the nearly 1.1 billion euros they have been demanding in support of higher education for a long time.  There is going to be a systemic sum of 800 million, plus a one-off payment of 300 million. But they also warn for the devil in the details, giving him a series of tips.

Students are keeping their powder dry for now. The Dutch Student Union has already announced protests against the low compensation for students under the current system of loans. But a former president of the Dutch Student Union once called for Dijkgraaf as Minister of Education.

Dijkgraaf’s appointment has also not gone unnoticed abroad. Belgian daily De Morgen names him as evidence that renowned and distinguished figures will be entering the government, as promised by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. In an article about the “left-liberal force” of party D66 in the new government, German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung describes Dijkgraaf as one of the two experts “standing alongside the career politicians”.

Dijkgraaf’s appointment has also been a fertile subject for cartoonists. Cartoon duo Fokke and Sukke are in the new government, but aren’t much looking forward to their first meeting with Dijkgraaf. Bas van der Schot draws Dijkgraaf as descending from Planet Princeton into the black hole of Dutch politics. And in The World of Anton Dingeman he is referred to as the ‘immaculate politician’; even more spectacular than the Loch Ness Monster.