“Throwing money at the problem won’t help” says Education Minister

Study delays due to COVID? Education Minister Ingrid Van Engelshoven says she is only willing to reassess the need for additional student support if “real bottlenecks” occur. Overworked academic staff will also have to plough ahead without further assistance for the time being.

photo Holger Kleine / Shutterstock

A majority of MPs want the government to help students whose academic progress is delayed as a result of the coronavirus crisis. The Education Minister broadly agrees with this position, but in last week’s parliamentary debate she said she would have to see the exact figures first. She hopes to be able to provide more concrete information in November.

The Minister is opposed to a plan put forward by the Labour Party (PvdA) to set up a solidarity fund for vulnerable students. “Telling students there’s a pile of money waiting for them if they don’t graduate on schedule is hardly going to help their progress here and now.” She argues that extensive action is already being taken. “We are doing absolutely everything we can to keep students from falling behind unnecessarily.”

If a significant number of students do end up having to postpone their graduation next year as a result of COVID, the government is “of course” willing to consider compensating them for the additional costs incurred, as was the case this spring. “This position has been stated not only by me, but also by the Prime Minister and the Minister of Finance. How many assurances do you want?”

Budget shortfall

But is that money actually available? The Christian Democrats (CDA) called the Minister’s attention to a substantial increase in the number of new students expected to sign up for universities and universities of applied sciences. An increase that would leave her with a significant shortfall in her budget. Meanwhile, at the other end of the political spectrum, GroenLinks wanted to know whether the institutions themselves need extra support to provide guidance for a new student cohort that will mainly be taught online.

Minister Van Engelshoven asked for patience, as the figures on student numbers for the new academic year will not be known until February and she assured MPs that she is “constantly” monitoring whether the institutions can cope financially. That said, she did not rule out a proposal by VVD and D66 to break open existing quality agreements and use more of the millions generated by the loan system to improve online education.

More time to reflect

Parliament supported the Minister’s plan to give vocational students who progress to higher professional education more time to reflect on their study choices. They will now be given a respite until 1 September so that they can quit their studies without facing major financial consequences. Initially this measure will cost five million euros a year, and can eventually be scaled back to two million, Van Engelshoven has estimated. “That’s an amount we can live with.”

She was also pleased to discover a decline in parliamentary support for strict expulsion criteria for students who do not make sufficient progress by the end of their first year. She believes that no one ultimately benefits from an unnecessary and expensive measure that does little more than “pump students around the education system”. As recently as 2018, her unexpected plan to drastically lower the expulsion threshold met with outspoken criticism (article in Dutch), but now both the Christian Democrats and the D66 Democrats are advocating a new approach to academic progress that gives students who fail certain courses another chance in their second year at the same institution.

GroenLinks criticised the proposal as nothing new, since even now students are sometimes allowed to progress to second year on condition that they catch up on courses they did not pass. The party would prefer students not to be faced with expulsion at all. While the Christian Democrats argued that this was going too far, the Minister indicated that she was not against the idea.

Tough operation

MPs also wanted to know what the Education Minister plans to do about the immense pressure that teaching staff and researchers are currently under at work. Once again, she insisted that “simply throwing money at the problem” will not do much good. She wants to take a more structural approach to tackling the workload problem, although she concedes that this will be “a tough operation”.

She again acknowledged that research funding has not kept pace with the significant growth in higher education and has authorised an assessment of exactly how much money universities and universities of applied sciences currently need. According to Van Engelshoven, the extra half billion euros that the government has already invested in science is not enough. “Only through further investment can we restore the balance between direct and indirect funding and really tackle the problem of the workload in higher education and research.”

Greater security

If the funding of universities and universities of applied sciences becomes less dependent on student numbers, this will lead to greater security for institutions and study programmes, especially those which attract fewer students. It will also lead to better contracts for lecturers and researchers, and ultimately to a more manageable workload.

With this in mind, the Socialist Party wanted to know whether the Minister will require institutions to give more permanent contracts to staff, or is she only planning to appeal to their better judgement? The Minister described this as an interesting point. “If an institution finds itself on firmer ground, it is clearly important for its academic staff to feel the benefit too. But we will have to wait until spring to see exactly what approach needs to be taken.”

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