Foresight study outlines complex landscape of political choices

Tomorrow’s education system could be better aligned with the labor market, social challenges or the wishes of individual students, according to the Ministry of Education’s long-awaited foresight study. It all comes down to political choices.

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After months of delays, outgoing Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf has sent his foresight study to the House of Representatives. In the document, researchers speculate about what secondary and higher education and academia might look like in the year 2040.

“One important fact to take into account is that there will soon be more jobs than people,” Minister Dijkgraaf notes in an interview with HOP. “We’re probably about to enter a period of structural labor shortages. Then the question becomes: should we still allow young people to make their own career decisions? Or do you want to channel their freedom of choice?”

The foresight study, titled ‘Vandaag is het 2040’ (The Year is 2040), saw researchers collect all kinds of input in a series of meetings with students, teachers, researchers and other interested parties. The report also addresses population ageing, migration, polarisation and other relevant developments.

Five research agencies were involved in the study: KBA Nijmegen, ResearchNed, CHEPS, Andersson Elffers Felix (AEF) and the Kohnstamm Institute. In the end, three possible paths were identified.

More or less freedom

Future policymakers could choose to focus on the labour market and the economy. This would mean that students would have less freedom to pursue their own academic interests, as we will need more engineers, healthcare professionals and teachers. There would also be less scope for so-called blue skies research, driven purely by curiosity.

Another possible path would be to focus mainly on societal challenges. This would involve looking beyond just the economy and labour market, at issues such as climate change, food insecurity and inequality. In addition, restricted enrolment programmes would have to pay more attention to ‘transparent and valid selection processes’.

The third path is centred around individual talent. Students would be given a large degree of freedom, with the supply of programmes following demand. In the same vein, more money would be allocated to blue skies research.

Mutually exclusive

Future governments will have to choose between these options. Some of the available choices are mutually exclusive, others can be combined. Careful selection procedures for restricted enrolment programmes, for example, could be part of all three paths.

Minister Dijkgraaf was planning to use the foresight study to chart his own course, but now that the government has resigned this will not be happening. In a letter to the House of Representatives, he only outlines the choices future cabinets will have to make.

Continuation requirements

Continuation requirements and selection at the gate, for example, can lead to performance pressure: “Where is the line between measures that challenge students and measures that lead to unnecessary stress?” Earlier this week, the House of Representatives decided to postpone discussions on continuation requirements until after the elections.

And what about limiting enrolments for programmes that are poorly aligned with the labour market? Dijkgraaf’s letter continues: “What does this mean for scientific education, which is not vocationally oriented by definition?”


Similar questions can be asked in relation to future research. “In any case, we must ensure that a career in science remains an attractive proposition, and that we nurture every talent,” Dijkgraaf writes.

According to the minister, societal challenges call for both fundamental and applied research. To this end, organisations need to improve their internal cooperation, but cooperation is also important “between vocational colleges and higher education institutions, as well as with applied research organisations and civil society stakeholders”.

Dijkgraaf also underlines that, to some extent, certain choices have already been made. “The cabinet has substantially increased government investments in natural sciences and technology with its sector plans, the Fund for Research and Science and the National Growth Fund.”


The ministry will have more to say about funding at a later date. Universities in particular would like a more stable financial base so that they are less dependent on enrolment figures. The same goes for universities of applied sciences in areas facing depopulation. But providing that kind of stability is easier said than done.

Earlier, Dijkgraaf explained to the House of Representatives that his ministry’s budget simply depends on the number of pupils and students enrolled in the Dutch education system. This means that if one part of the funding becomes more stable, another part has to become more flexible. There is also the question of what this would mean for the accessibility of education.

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