The relief package just announced by Ministers of Education Van Engelshoven and Slob forms part of the presentation of their National Education Program. This support package has a price tag of over 8.5 billion euros. “Because”, Minister Van Engelshoven said, “the pandemic has loaded extra work on nearly every school, every educational institution and every student’s progress.”
The year of Covid-19 meant that students had to participate in seminars and attend lectures from behind their laptops. Some students fell behind in their program requirements and that’s why all students will receive a 50 percent reduction on their tuition fees for the coming academic year. They will also be entitled to student loans for an extended period. In addition, they will be able to use their transit pass for an extra year. The precondition is that they were entitled to a free public transit pass between March and December 2020 for a minimum of at least one month. Taken all together, these steps should relieve a lot of the pressure, the minister anticipates.
Earlier this month, the Parliament passed a motion insisting the minister to allow students with study delays to enrol for an entire year without paying tuition fees. Minster Van Engelshoven has now chosen to give everyone an extra six months without tuition fees. She estimates that’s equivalent to the average set-back students are experiencing, she said during the press conference.
In order to also provide better support for their mental health, more study and guidance counsellors will be appointed. Because it’s hard to be a student right now, the minister said. “Waiting for your internship so you can graduate or sitting alone in your room staring at other students you hardly know, on your computer screen.”
The coronavirus crisis has also brought a great deal of uncertainty to the lives of academic researchers. Some of them have temporary contracts, but won’t be able to complete their research projects on time. Laboratories are closed and fieldwork has ground to a halt.
There’s good news for 20,000 of these junior researchers: the government has earmarked 162 million euros to extend their contracts. “They will be able to finish their important research projects and continue to teach”, the minister said.
In addition to the more than 8.5 billion for the national programme, the government will be investing 645 million annually to compensate mainly universities and universities of applied sciences for the rise in student numbers. A small sum of that funding will go to senior secondary vocational institutions (mbo), but how much is as of yet unknown. Enrollments at the institutions really shot up like beanstalks over the past year: a gap year to go backpacking or finding a job was not an option for young people in coronavirus times, so they enrolled en masse.
On the brink of collapse
Protest movement WOinActie warned last week that university staff are on the brink of collapse. With this extra funding the government wants to help universities and universities of applied sciences hire more support staff and lecturers, which will decrease workload pressure. “There is a crying need for extra funding”, Van Engelshoven said. This will be structural funding, she emphasised during the press conference, that will also remain in place after the formation of the new government.
But what’s happening with that extra billion euros higher education has been asking for for so long, a keen FD journalist wanted to know. Is there a chance that later during the formation the new government will say that such investment isn’t so critical any more?
That’s not the idea, the minister said. “That extra billion is supported by a different line of reasoning”, she said. Structural investment is, in her opinion, “essential”, in addition to the current 645 million euros. “But I’m saying that now as a D66 party member.”
Pieter Duisenberg, chair of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) is happy with the package of measures for student wellbeing and program completion. “Moreover, it’s a serious step towards dealing with the problem of study delays.”
He also thinks it’s good news that universities will be receiving — fast-tracked and structural — funding for the recent growth in student numbers. “The extra lecturers, student counsellors and support staff that we can now hire will prevent the already extremely high workload pressure from increasing any further.”
He did warn — as did Minister Van Engelshoven during the press conference — that the problem of structural underfunding of teaching and research will not automatically disappear. “That will be the number one task of the new government.”
The national student organisations also responded positively. ISO chair Dahran Çoban: “It’s fantastic that the cabinet has made such a big financial gesture in support of students. The next step is scaling up face-to-face teaching. When that happens I will be able to say that we as students will come through this crisis.”
Student union chairperson Lyle Muns says: “This package of support shows that the government takes the problems young people are facing seriously. By allowing students to pay less for their tuition next year while also extending student funding we will ensure that students themselves will not be left to pay the bill for the coronavirus crisis. This will give everyone a bit of breathing space.”