Series of investigative articles about the quality agreements
The hundreds of millions that the abolition of the basic student grant would generate each year was to be used in full to improve education. That was the promise made by Minister Bussemaker back in 2015. However, due to shady promises, rising student numbers and a fainthearted minister, it remains to be seen whether students will actually ever receive a better education, according to national research by the Amsterdam university news outlet Folia and others.
The hundreds of millions that are being freed up by the abolition of the basic student grant have – as yet – not led to education been given on a smaller scale with greater personal attention on most universities, as was promised to students five years ago. Our research shows that owing to the rapid growth in the number of students, the student population at most universities and some universities of applied sciences is outpacing the number of teaching staff. This is remarkable, because when the loan system was introduced, it was feared that the number of students would actually decline.
This growth is partly caused by the fact that the budget allocated to universities of applied sciences is largely dependent on the number of students that they have. Recruiting a lot of students means that a university or hogeschool (university of applied science) receives a larger share of the budget for higher education, but because that budget is not increased proportionately, the amount that universities of applied sciences receive per student becomes ever smaller. Moreover, as a result of the launch of English-language programmes for the international market, there are hardly any limits to the growth in the number of students nowadays.
By abolishing the basic student grant, thousands of extra teachers were supposed to be added to the teaching staff. These extra teachers did materialise, but at universities the number of students per teacher actually increased due to the much higher growth of students. N.B. The figures in this chart do not include university lecturers and students in the Health field (studies such as dentistry and medicine). The Association of Universities does not have the complete figures for these.
The Veerman Commission had already warned against this problem in 2010 in its report Differentiëren in drievoud ('Differentiations in Triplicate'). It made the case for a major investment in higher education, but also stated that student numbers should become less relevant where funding is concerned. In retrospect, the investment that the Veerman Commission pushed for was made, but the condition that went with it - decoupling funding from student numbers - was not.
However, this is not the only reason why most students have hardly seen any of the extra money. Universities and colleges of higher education had promised to invest in advance from their own reserves in anticipation of the income from the loan system: the so-called pre-investments. This was to avert the risk of creating a lost generation, who would receive neither a basic student grant nor a better education. Insofar as they were prepared to account for these investments – our research shows that they failed to do so more than on one occasion, although not in Maastricht – it is often unclear whether these were in fact extra investments, or whether previously planned initiatives were declared as pre-investments.
Politicians in The Hague and representative bodies around the country stood by and watched. Minister Jet Bussemaker (Education, Culture & Science, PvdA/Dutch Labor Party) had already side-lined herself in 2014 by giving universities and colleges a blank cheque, as evidenced by our research. While she arranged with the universities and colleges that they would invest that extra money, it turned out that behind the scenes she did not stick so strictly to that reading of the agreement.
“You are also allowed to count things that you are already doing which will lead to the improvement of education. You can count buildings, you can count anything and everything," is how Groningen university board member Sibrand Poppema summed up the minister's words in 2014 in a discussion with the university council.
Representative bodies were side-lined
In practice, those students in representative bodies lacked experience and knowledge of administrative smarts to bring an incredibly complex project like that of pre-investments to successful completion. Former members of student councils at universities of applied sciences tell us that administrators often barely involved them.
Moreover, because of the annual changeovers, they often felt ill-prepared for difficult financial discussions. This becomes even more complicated when administrators are guilty of turning the tables or resorting to other tricks, such as planning a decision on pre-investment in the first meeting of a new council year.
Maastricht is again the exception. For six months in 2018, there was a lot of discussion at UM about the quality agreements in the various faculties. First in specially composed committees (which also included students) and finally in the faculty councils that were allowed to give advice.
Subsequently, the plans were put on the agenda of the university council. There, too, a fierce debate took place. Only after the board of the Faculty of Psychology and Neuroscience (FPN) had explained their plans a second time did the council approve the quality agreements.
In order to keep a finger on the pulse, the faculty councils receive an update every year about the quality agreements of the respective faculty boards. This may lead to a new discussion, as happened in January 2020 at FPN, in March 2020 at the Faculty of Law and in October 2020 at the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life sciences.
Bussemaker's successor Ingrid van Engelshoven (Education, Culture & Science, D66) also thought that things should be different when it came to actually spending the proceeds of the loan system. She enlisted the help of the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO). Before universities and universities of applied science could receive the actual basic student grant money, they had to write a plan that the NVAO would then advise the minister on.
It turned into a battlefield. Almost half of the universities of applied sciences (including the five largest) and two universities were given a negative advice. Maastricht was not one of them, on the contrary: UM was the first to receive positive advice on 13 March 2019. We are now in the third year of six in which the revenues of the loan system are being allocated this way, and one in five universities still do not have an approved plan. Universities have not yet had to face the consequence as the money was always paid out regardless, with the corona crisis as an excuse this year.
Moreover, Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven twice overruled her own education inspector. Van Engelshoven brushed aside negative recommendations from the NVAO about the plans of Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Groningen and Delft University of Technology after a private conversation with the administrators of the institutions, providing scant justification for her decision.
Professor Henriëtte Maassen van den Brink, who has sat on several NVAO panels, views the whole situation with dismay. According to her, it seems that all universities and colleges of higher education inevitably receive their money, even though some of the plans "really raise questions" about how educational improvements can be subsequently monitored. "That undermines the agreements that we have made, as well as the confidence of students who had to hand in their basic student grant."
Courtesy of Altan Erdogan, Laura ter Steege and Yvonne van de Meent.
This is the second episode in a series of investigative articles that was made possible by the Dutch Fund for Journalism and various editorial boards at higher education institutions and universities in the Netherlands.