There were reactions of shock and dismay in the House of Representatives in response to the government’s Spring Memorandum announcing tens of millions of euros in cuts to higher and vocational education.
The government wants these spending cuts to help pay for coronavirus support measures for students: these include extending student financing and student transport entitlements. The total cost, spread over the years 2023 through 2027, will amount to around 149 million euros.
Universities will be required to make up about half of the amount, universities of applied sciences a third, and vocational colleges the rest. Administrators, teachers and students are angry and busy mulling over a joint press release. Only ten days ago they gave their backing to an administrative agreement releasing a wide-ranging support package that made no mention of such cuts.
Quick off the mark
Two members of the House have been quick off the mark with their responses. “I’m extremely troubled by the way this has been handled”, says MP Lisa Westerveld of GroenLinks. “Rest assured that we will be asking probing questions about this issue.”
The House had to exert substantial pressure on government to get compensation for students in this coronavirus crisis, Westerveld says, and when that support finally came (“not coincidentally shortly before the election”), it was generous. Now it seems that the education sector is going to be squeezed to pay for it.
“I think this has come as a very unpleasant surprise to everyone”, SP’s Peter Kwint adds. “In recent years, academic staff at universities have been sounding the alarm about their working conditions and shortfalls in funding. It’s nothing short of bizarre for a D66 education minister in a government that’s on its last legs to be glibly announcing cutbacks to higher education.”
But it appears that D66 – a party known for its strong stance on education – has also been caught off-guard by this announcement. Or as D66 politician Jan Paternotte puts it “I find this peculiar.” Extending the student public transport card is a coronavirus measure, he explains, so it makes no sense to offset it with cuts to the education budget. “So we have lots of questions about this.”
Habtamu de Hoop (PvdA) posted a comment on Twitter about the “justified anger” felt in higher education. “It’s incomprehensible that this is where the biggest cuts will be falling.”
In its explanatory remarks, the Ministry notes: “The next government may reconsider the source of financing, if so desired.” In other words, this could become an issue in the forthcoming negotiations to form a new coalition government.
The Ministry makes no mention of why the cost of this package should be charged to the budget for education. Other measures, such as nearly half a billion euros for Covid home testing in higher education, have been kept separate from the education budget.
Educational institutions and students outraged
How could this happen, ask universities, colleges of higher education, MBO institutions and students in a joint letter to Education Minister Van Engelshoven. On Friday 21 May, a comprehensive agreement on corona support (the National Education Program) was signed. And the following Monday, the institutions received a message from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) warning them of budget cuts.
“I am livid,” says Pieter Duisenberg, President of the universities association VSNU. “You can’t tell me that a problem suddenly surfaced over the weekend that wasn’t known before. The only conclusion possible is that the information in the agreement was incomplete.”
Student organisations LSVb and ISO also expressed themselves in strong terms. “It’s incomprehensible that the Cabinet is coming up with this now,” says Lyle Muns, President of the Landelijke Studentenvakbond (National Students Union). “Either OCW didn’t know about this themselves – and then it’s quite a blunder – or they did know and they deliberately withheld important information.”
Dahran Çoban President of the Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg (Intercity Student Consultation) says that “Students were promised that they would be supported in these difficult times. We were super happy with that. And now that support is taken away from the educational institutions. It is as if students have to choose between their income and the quality of their education.”
HOP, Bas Belleman