Wageningen only offers two-year MSc programmes in the social sciences. But the Dutch government only funds students for one year. Students who take even one month extra could incur a fine. Not fair, says the executive board, which has promise to compensate such students. Rector Martin Kropff explains why.
Why is it so important to Wageningen to run two-year Social Sciences MSc programmes? Other universities do them in one year, don't they?
'Wageningen social sciences Masters' are interdisciplinary and involve science subjects. Take the Communications programme, for example: it focuses on communication in the field of nutrition and health. So besides knowing about communication, you need some knowledge of these disciplines. That level of complexity demands a Master's course of two years.'
Are we not putting ourselves a bit outside the system this way?
'No, all two-year MSc programmes are accredited, which means they have been approved by a body working on behalf of the government. It is only that we miss out on funding, which is fixed at one year for this type of programme. Our idea would be: relate the fine for students taking too long to the accredited period rather than to the budgeted period.'
What is the next step?
'A steering committee led by Professor Arthur Mol is going to line up the options. The costs will be taken into consideration, but so will our position on the market. And of course, quality comes first. Anything could come out of the steering committee's report. Maybe we will leave things as they are, but we may also decide to cut the programmes down to one year, or to one and a half years. It depends what students themselves want too.'
Do you know what they want?
'We know that students appreciate the quality we go for in the two-year MSc programmes. But if the grants for Master's degrees are replaced by a loan system, as Zijlstra wants, it is quite possible that the interest in two-year programmes will go down. After all, you build up bigger debts. So we need to look into that.'
How do other universities solve this?
'The situation we have in Wageningen is fairly unique. But we are looking at whether other universities have comparable courses. It is always better to tackle it together of course.'
There was some discussion in the media about the question of whether the Wageningen initiative was legal.
'That was very premature. Zijlstra's law is not yet even in place, so what can you base your arguments on? Besides, we have never said that the group of students concerned won't have to pay the extra fees; we have only promised to compensate them. In whatever way we decide.'
How is Wageningen going to pay for that?
'You can't just say you'll pay A with B. It is not as simple as that. We'll just have to find the money. We don't know yet how much it will cost. Of course we want to keep the costs down by getting as many students as possible through their degrees in the allotted time. The students want that too, because it helps them keep their debts down.'
When will the final decision be made about the length of the Master's programmes?
'That is hard to say. The steering committee has to do its job first. If that leads to a reduction in the length of the programmes, you can't just change the curriculum overnight. All the programmes are accredited, so it takes time to make changes. We want to do things properly, without creating any cause for concern.'