Dijkgraaf fielded questions from the House of Representatives last Monday about the general outline of his policy for higher education and science, for which the government is earmarking hundreds of millions in extra funding.
The House wasn’t exactly packed – only Hatte van der Woude (VVD), Lisa Westerveld (GroenLinks) and Jeanet van der Laan (D66) were present for the debate. “It’s a pity that a number of other people who could have contributed to this discussion weren’t here”, Dijkgraaf drily noted after politely praising the House’s input.
In addition to topics such as science policy and student welfare, the position of vocational and higher professional education was also discussed. During this part of the debate, Van der Woude also spoke on behalf of coalition partners CDA and ChristenUnie. “Are we currently doing enough for vocational and higher professional education? Is it important enough to us?” she asked, rhetorically. “We often talk about it as something you ‘work your way up’ from – something you ‘pass through’ on your way to the holy grail, a university degree. As far as we’re concerned, people simply need to make better choices when it comes to their education.”
Explosion of enrolments
“We’re seeing an explosion of enrolments at universities, while the student bodies of universities of applied sciences are shrinking”, she added. “Many people who are currently enrolling in universities don’t belong there at all. It’s too challenging for them. They take a long time to graduate and then end up getting a job below university level.”
The MPs did not discuss the impact of the labour market on the decisions prospective students make. A nurse earns less than a doctor, for instance. The debate mainly focused on the ‘profiles’ of various degree programmes.
“Many university Bachelor’s programmes resemble UAS programmes and are essentially cannibalising higher professional education”, Van der Woude argued. “And why do we have higher professional education? If there’s barely any distinction between higher professional and university education anymore, then universities of applied sciences will pay the price.” Maurice Limmen, president of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, made a similar argument in the Financieele Dagblad.
Dijkgraaf agreed that higher professional and vocational education deserved more attention. “I think we have to be very wary of a kind of hierarchical view. Personally, I much prefer to talk about a range of education types in which vocational education, higher professional education and universities all have different tasks, each adding their own value.”
Dijkgraaf said he also wanted to invest in vocational and higher professional education and ensure a better connection to the labour market, while also noting the importance of practice-based research. Furthermore, he wants to look at how the government can help sustain universities of applied sciences in areas where enrolment numbers are declining.
And what about students making the transition from universities of applied sciences to universities? On the one hand, the minister believes it is important that students remain able to make this switch. “We don’t want to create barriers.” On the other hand, he doesn’t want to give the impression that a university degree is ‘the highest possible goal’. “That’s a dilemma.”
Westerveld (GroenLinks) agreed, but wanted to know what concrete steps the minister was planning to take next. Dijkgraaf had none to offer at this stage. He did promise to inform the House of Representatives of his plans before the summer.