“We’re really disappointed”, says Inspector General Alida Oppers during an interview about The State of Education, the annual report (in Dutch) by the Inspectorate of Education. Before she has her say, first nine key takeaways:
- Dropout rates on the rise
Higher education is facing a slump in enrolments, as well as an increased dropout rate among first-year students. The leniency shown by education institutions during the pandemic plays a role here as well, as there is also a sharp increase in the number of second-year students leaving without a diploma.
- Blind spots in quality assurance…
Programme assessments have blind spots. For example, very little attention is paid to the impact of internationalisation and students’ language skills. According to the Inspectorate, neglecting these topics can “erode public confidence in the quality of higher education and this form of accreditation”.
- … and recommendations are often not made public
Assessment committees also give recommendations on how programmes might be improved. The vast majority of programmes do not make these public, even though they are required to do so.
- Writing skills have to improve
The government should provide programmes with clear guidelines on how to improve their students’ language skills. Especially in English-taught programmes, students have little opportunity to improve their Dutch proficiency.
- Students expect more internship support
Three in ten students say their programmes fail to offer proper internship support. Many also struggle to find internships and indicate that they do not receive enough help with this. Internship discrimination is a problem as well, eight percent of students say.
- Student participation in need of an overhaul
Despite their best efforts, programmes are still struggling to get students involved in participation councils. Meanwhile, the government believes these bodies should play a crucial role in higher education. The Inspectorate suggests a complete overhaul may be needed, to “better align student participation with today’s requirements”.
- Lack of social safetyArt schools in particular have instituted policies to improve social safety, but it is still unclear if these actually work in practice. More attention needs to be paid to the effectiveness of these policies.
- Students from low-income backgrounds continue to do well
Fewer children from low-income families are entering higher education, and even fewer are enrolling in programmes that apply selective admission procedures. The good news is that the academic performance of disadvantaged students who do enrol in higher education is roughly on par with that of their peers.
- Law is outdatedThe Higher Education and Research Act’s is on its last legs. When the law was written, higher education was not nearly as internationalised as it is today, and digital teaching did not exist yet.
To start with the latter, the Inspectorate has been warning for several years that the Higher Education and Research Act is on its last legs. Or in more diplomatic language: the Act is out of date. The message is that politicians need to take action.
‘Few students know what a programme committee is’
“The warning inherent in the report is that we have to keep on top of our business”, says Oppers. The problems with the language proficiency of students, with the supervision of the quality of study programmes and with the fragile support base for the participation bodies… It’s all very familiar. But when will something be done about it?
Take quality supervision, for example. In the past, politicians often used reassuring words: all higher education study programmes have been accredited by the Dutch-Flemish accreditation association NVAO, so they are fine. “So the programmes have been accredited, but is it enough?”, Oppers wonders out loud.
In her opinion, Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf understands the criticism, because he has been working for months on a substantial forward study. “He wants to take an in-depth look at how higher education works, and that gives us hope. It’s something really new. We look forward to finding out what will emerge.”
Susanne Rijken, Inspector for Higher Education, is sitting alongside Oppers. They both underline why the Higher Education Act is getting out of date. “It was created at a time when there were very few international students and when digital teaching didn’t exist”, says Rijken.
Problems with internationalisation were not yet an issue at that time. That topic doesn’t really arise with accreditations, and there are more blind spots in the quality supervision as well. For example, the work placements are very rarely examined, even though the inspectors say there is so much more that could be achieved.
And there are also plans to leave the quality supervision more to the higher education institutions themselves, via ‘institutional accreditation’. That means they check the quality of their own teaching, while all the government does is make sure they are doing it properly. “It’s a political choice”, says Oppers. “It then becomes harder for the government to say, we want to look more critically at language proficiency or internationalisation. But if you don’t think it’s important, you can of course leave it to the institutions themselves.”
The politicians are passing on some topics – such as social safety and student wellbeing – to the participation bodies. But does that solve the problem? The participation bodies are under pressure too, the Inspectorate has found. There are few students who even know what a ‘programme committee’ is or what it does. “We found that out ten years ago”, says Rijken. “All sorts of things have been tried, so many solutions have been devised: how we get the students enthusiastic about student participation? But nothing has changed.”
‘We’re taking a good hard look at educational institutions’
So the Inspectorate writes that there are “alternative ways of designing the participation function that are more in keeping with today’s world”. Maybe new forms of ‘citizen participation’ via digital solutions should be considered, Rijken speculates. But the main point is that things need to change fundamentally, because at the moment it is not working.
Nothing can happen by itself, the Inspectorate says. Institutions are happy to continue on the beaten track. Take selection in higher education, for instance. The selection procedures are unsound, the Inspectorate reported earlier this year. In fact, everyone is doing what they like and, with selection, the study programmes are tinkering with equality of opportunities.
“We find that shocking”, Oppers says. “One of the problems is that study programmes often don’t consider the effect on equality of opportunities. What is the bias in their procedure? To what extent can they justify their choices? Those are questions they find hard. And meanwhile more and more selection is taking place!”
So shouldn’t the Inspectorate take action, if the quality of higher education is at risk? “With The State of Education we’re taking a good hard look at educational institutions”, says Oppers. “But we’re not the ones that can solve the problems. In the end, that’s up to the institutions and study programmes themselves.”
HOP, Bas BellemanTranslation: Taalcentrum-VU