Is there enough room for debate and development in Dutch higher education?

Five percent of students in the Netherlands do not feel comfortable to express their opinions when debating in class. Photo: Pixabay

It has been enshrined in law since 1960: Dutch higher education institutions should “also focus on personal development and promoting a sense of social responsibility”. But is it really doing that? At the request of the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Inspectorate of Education investigated what the current situation is.

It turns out that many institutions attach great importance to topics like sustainability, diversity and unequal opportunities, so they organise activities around those topics. But only half of the students feel encouraged to participate in those activities, according to the inspectorate's survey.

Moreover, it looks like the debate is not conducted freely everywhere. Although 86 percent of the students surveyed feel free to express their opinions, 5 percent do not. That translates into thousands of students.

According to the inspectorate, active student participation in co-determination councils is part and parcel of a good ‘institutional climate’. But the interest in it has been declining for years. Add to that the fact that institutions sometimes leave a lot to be desired when it comes to providing a safe space for students. All in all, the inspectorate doubts whether everyone in higher education learns to express their opinion freely.

That's why the inspectorate has announced a follow-up survey to get a "better picture" of the institutional climate. That research comes in addition to an ongoing survey on social safety in art colleges and the rest of the higher education sector.

Monitoring the bottom line
In her response (link in Dutch), minister Van Engelshoven stresses that academic freedom needs to be safeguarded just as much as students’ freedom of speech. “This means that lecturers must have the freedom to conduct their research, publish their findings and teach – even if sensitive subjects are involved or if students are not sympathetic to them.” After all, she writes, “confrontation, debate and tricky discussions all form part of people’s development.”

In her view, the government needs at least to monitor the bottom line. For instance, discrimination in higher education is unacceptable and the minister can, in extreme cases, deprive an institution of its power to award grades.