Ten questions about the ‘BSA’

The political discussion around the ‘BSA’ (the binding study recommendation) is becoming heated once again, now that opinions in parliament are starting to shift. Let’s remind ourselves of what it’s all about.

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A GroenLinks motion against the BSA was passed by the Dutch House of Representatives this week, calling on the minister to enter into discussions with the educational institutions about its reform or abolition. The minister is happy to do this. Opponents of the BSA have already started celebrating a victory.

When was the BSA introduced?

The BSA was introduced back in the 1990s, first at universities of applied sciences (HBO), and later at universities too. By 2010 almost all HBO programmes and more than 40 percent of university programmes had introduced a BSA. The required standard also got tougher to achieve over time.

What’s the thinking behind the BSA?

Initially, the idea behind the BSA was to ensure that students who were not suited to the programme that they had chosen had the opportunity to switch to a different study programme at an early stage. At the end of the first year, all students are given a positive or a negative ‘recommendation’; this is mandatory. Later, efficiency also began to play a role – the BSA was a way of getting students to make quicker progress, and reducing the time that teaching staff needed to spend on ‘hopeless cases’ who had little chance of ever graduating successfully.

Are there any exceptions to the BSA?

Yes, there are. If you are ill for an extended period or if there are other special circumstances, the programme needs to make an exception. But students need to notify their institution in good time. You can’t just claim to have been ill or have had psychological problems after the fact.

Has the BSA always been controversial?

Yes, it has. Student organisations have been against it from the start, and the concept did not always enjoy full support within the educational institutions themselves. This is why it took twenty years for all of them to introduce it. The euphemistic term ‘binding study recommendation’ is also a sign of the sensitivities that have existed around the BSA right from the beginning.

Incidentally, the institutions wanted to be allowed to get rid of students in senior years too (that idea was dropped), and they also bent the rules around the regular BSA by using ‘deferments’ in cases where students had not yet passed all the required first-year courses.

Is the BSA effective?

There are various opinions on this. And of course, it depends on what you mean by ‘effective’. Student organisations point out that many of the students who are told to leave simply enrol in a similar programme elsewhere. They think that the BSA actually results in more time wasted, and that it would be better just to give students advice and leave them free to make their own decision.

What do proponents of the BSA say?

One of the most ardent proponents of the BSA is (or was) Erasmus University Rotterdam. There, students need to earn all 60 credits in their first year in order to continue their study programme. However, they are also allowed to make up for any failed courses with higher grades in other subjects. “It’s becoming ever more important for students to complete their studies within the time allotted”, explains the university. The BSA is designed to help achieve that goal. “In the second and third year, there is still plenty of time for other activities alongside your studies, such as a board position or studying abroad for a while.”

However, there seems to be limited evidence that the BSA actually leads to better results (students make slightly faster progress, at best). And in practice, few students are referred to a more suitable programme.

Is the BSA a source of stress for students?

The obvious answer would be yes. If students are worried about not passing their first year, that will lead to stress. But there are many other sources of stress too: high student debt, the coronavirus pandemic, an uncertain future, learning to stand on your own two feet… The BSA undoubtedly contributes to the pressure that students are under, but it is difficult to say exactly how much.

How much does the BSA cost to implement and how much does it save?

Again, this is difficult to say for sure, because while some students may fall behind, others may make quicker progress. The political parties have had their proposals costed by the Central Planning Board, which found that scrapping the BSA would make little difference in terms of funding. So opposing the BSA is a ‘cost-neutral’ policy position. However, Education Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven and others have also talked about students being ‘passed around’ by universities, and she does not see this as an efficient use of education funding.

Is the BSA still being applied during the coronavirus crisis?

For now, yes. Due to the exceptional circumstances, almost all first-year students were allowed to proceed to the second year in 2020, but no promises have been made for this academic year. Initial analyses show that the effect of the pandemic on students’ academic progress has been limited.

What position are the political parties taking?

VVD, CDA, PVV and SGP all voted against the GroenLinks motion; the other parties (including Cabinet parties D66 and ChristenUnie) supported it. It is worth noting that the CDA is no longer a firm advocate, however: the party wants to look into whether other systems might work better.

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