Four thousand more teachers, smaller group sizes, more contact hours and more intensive supervision. The abolition of the student grant in 2015 was very painful, but students would benefit from a better quality of education in return. Whether the 2.5 billion euros that is to be freed up between now and 2024 will also be spent on the educational improvements that were promised is still uncertain even after five bursary-free years.
In fact, one university, in Tilburg, and sixteen universities of applied sciences do not yet have an approved spending plan. As a result, the allocation of 40 percent of the abolished student grant money is still unclear, according to research carried out by Folia. Today, Minister Van Engelshoven is debating the bursary funds with the Dutch House of Representatives.
In 2018, in order to ensure that the bursary millions will not be used to plug up any shortfalls in the budget or to bolster reserves, it was agreed that each university would draw up a quality assurance scheme. This should clearly state what they intend to spend the extra money on and how this would help to improve education.
When it comes to making these decisions, students and faculty must be involved in representative councils. The Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO), which reviews the quality of all higher education programmes, will judge whether the plans are viable and verifiable. However, the minister ultimately takes the decision on qualified disbursement.
Starting next year, universities and academic institutions will only receive their share of the bursary funds if their quality assurance scheme is approved. Minister Van Engelshoven wants to give the institutions one more year of respite.
If everything had gone according to plan, the lion's share of universities and colleges would have a realistic and verifiable quality assurance scheme in place by now. At most, it was expected that two or three academic institutions would not pass the NVAO review in one go and would need to resit it. But that turned out to be a gross miscalculation.
Documents sent by the minister to the House of Representatives earlier this month show that at least seventeen academic institutions must redo their homework. This includes Tilburg University and no fewer than sixteen of the thirty-six universities of applied sciences, including the five largest. The negative decisions given to the quality assurance schemes embraced by the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht University of Applied Sciences, Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences and Arnhem and Nijmegen University of Applied Sciences are already in the public domain. Fontys officially objected to the negative decision, but this was overruled at the end of May.
The only university of applied sciences with more than 30,000 students that has made it through the NVAO approval process without a hitch is Avans, the Brabant University of Applied Sciences which has been at the top of all quality-related rankings for years.
The NVAO committee chaired by professor Ramses Wessel from the University of Twente, that visited the TU/e last November expressly focused on the quality agreements that were made in order to improve the quality of education, as well as on the projects that need to contribute to this, and their financial accountability. Wessel had nothing but praise: “The plans are perfectly in line with the existing vision, and the employee representative body is constantly involved in the decision-making process, which is why the plans enjoy widespread support.”
The committee’s conclusion of the actual plans is that they are “concrete and feasible” and that the monitoring of these plans functions properly. “Clear budgeting, a clear monitoring process and good links between the individual projects that are running at the university. They are lastingly integrated in the existing processes.”
The positive final assessment rapport of NVAO was made public in April.
It appears from the NVAO reports that quality assurance schemes are being rejected because the institutions are not succeeding in translating their plans for improvement into concrete actions. Many universities of applied sciences want to appoint more lecturers to improve the student-to-staff ratio. But the NVAO experts believe that this goal is far too vague. They want to know how these extra teachers will improve the quality of education. Missing in all of the rejected plans is a multi-year budget which is coupled with concrete objectives that ensure it is possible to determine where the bursary funds are allocated.
This is precisely the shortcoming that the Netherlands Court of Audit came up against when examining pre-investments. In anticipation of the release of the first bursary millions back in 2018, universities of applied sciences and universities promised to invest even more in education themselves back then. Between 2015 and 2017, they agreed to collectively free up 600 million euros from their own reserves so that students who no longer received study grants would still be able to benefit from a better standard of education.
The academic institutions themselves say that they have earmarked 860 million euros for this, much more than originally promised. But the court's investigators were only able to establish with certainty that 280 million euro was in fact an extra investment, and not expenditure that was already on the table. Why was this? A lot of institutions had not drawn up a clear plan in advance stating where they would spend the extra funding.
When it comes to spending bursary funds, Minister Van Engelshoven promised several times during the parliamentary debate on the Netherland Court of Audit's report that things would definitely be done differently from now on. If institutions do not keep to the agreements made in their quality assurance schemes, they will be given one year to improve them. She warned that if they subsequently fail to do things properly, they would receive a lower amount of bursary funding.
Yet there is no time left to allow all seventeen institutions one more year to improve their quality assurance schemes. The minister has partly herself to thank for that. Although it was agreed that she would “as a rule” adopt NVAO's recommendations concerning quality assurance schemes, she could still choose to deviate from them.
In the event of an unfavourable recommendation, institutions are subsequently given the opportunity to persuade the Minister to change her mind. TU Delft managed to do this last year, and since then all the other administrators have taken advantage of this opportunity, even institutions that were aware that their quality assurance schemes were a bit rickety
For example, the governors of the Van Hall Larenstein agricultural university travelled to The Hague at the start of February to plead their case, and to admit that they actually agreed with the negative NVAO recommendation. They said they needed another year to draw up a good quality assurance scheme. In contrast, this year Hanze University of Applied Sciences managed to convince the minister to change her mind and diverge from the negative NVAO recommendation, inspiring other institutions to keep trying as well.
Backlogs and delays have arisen due to the unexpectedly large number of negative evaluations and the negotiations that followed. Two institutions, the VU and a university of applied sciences, are currently still awaiting a decision from the minister.
Obviously, it is no longer possible to complete all of the resits successfully before Prinsjesdag (Prince's Day, the Dutch annual budget day). But not paying out 40 percent of the bursary funds at a time when financial problems are already looming due to corona measures is not an option either. If it is up to Van Engelshoven, colleges and universities that do not yet have an approved quality assurance scheme will still receive their share of the 385 million euros next year that is earmarked for 2021. The corona epidemic will play a part in this. She wrote to the Dutch House of Representatives “that institutions need more time to complete their quality assurance schemes as due to the crisis resulting from COVID-19, they have other priorities at the moment, such as organising digital education.”
If the minister gets her way, by the end of next year the nearly one billion euros of bursary funding available since 2018 will have been distributed, even though a third of the quality assurance schemes are not yet on track. Whether those hundreds of millions have actually been spent on more intensive and smaller-scale education will then be impossible to determine. The Dutch House of Representatives is to discuss the proposal this afternoon.
This article is based on quality assurance agreement documents that have been submitted to the House of Representatives since 2016, parliamentary debate reports, quality assurance scheme assessments carried out by the NVAO, the minister's decisions on quality assurance schemes published on the Dutch government’s Quality Agreements site, and backroom discussions with dozens of stakeholders. Production of this was made possible in part by the Stimuleringsfonds voor de Journalistiek (The Dutch Journalism Fund) and the cooperation of Cursor and other university and higher education institution media.