Ten days ago the Lower House of the Dutch parliament passed a motion that green education, including Wageningen University, should be brought under the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. What was behind this motion, why was there suddenly a parliamentary majority in favour, and what could be the consequences for Wageningen UR? A reconstruction and a look ahead.
Photo: David van Dam, Hollandse Hoogte
In the autumn of 2014 the Lower House of the Dutch parliament, on the initiative of the conservative VVD and liberal-democrat D66 parties, asked the cabinet to get a study done of the pros and cons of having ‘green education’ institutions under the Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ), as is currently the case. The result was a report (Verkenning Sectoronderwijs) surveying sector-related education which was presented in the House on Princes Day (budget day) 2015 by education minister Jet Bussemaker and State Secretary for Economic Affairs Sharon Dijksma.
‘The connection between education and the business world is becoming increasingly important,’ the stateswomen wrote to the House. The report’s key conclusion, they say, is that sector-specific responsibilities are not essential for making this connection. They also cite the passage in the report saying that the green education sector feels the Ministry of Economic Affairs falls short when it comes to content-related involvement and leadership. ‘Many people feel EZ is no longer in a position to offer added value in directing green education in the long term.’
But the ministers are not proposing to bring green education under the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) because ‘OCW lacks the orientation and knowledge to do justice to important sector-specific needs’. EZ promises ‘to pay more attention to its responsibility for the contents of green education’ and to establish a ‘strategic development agenda’ of ‘substantial educational goals’ for the next ten years, in collaboration with education and business. Moreover, the two ministries have promised the House to apply the same rules of the game in establishing the education budget.
The ministers’ statement is ambivalent. And that is not surprising as, according to insiders, Minister Bussemaker favours transferring green education to OCW, while State Secretary Dijksma of EZ is against the idea.
At the end of October 2015, the Lower House debated Minister Bussemaker’s education budget for 2016. At that debate D66 and the Christian Union proposed a motion that green education be transferred to OCW. That motion was not really discussed, however. The ruling parties asked for the motion to be stayed to give them time to consider it. So it has not yet been debated and is expected to come up again when the EZ budget is debated in November.
But one day after the debate on the education budget, State Secretary for Infrastructure and Environment Wilma Mansveld resigned in response to the devastating report on the Fyra train fiasco. Shortly after this, EZ State Secretary Dijksma took over from Mansveld and a new State Secretary of EZ was appointed: Martijn van Dam. He could not go straight into a discussion of the EZ budget in the House so the debate was postponed until December.
The discussion about green education in The Hague has not stood still, however. For years the liberal D66 party has been of the opinion that all education belongs under the ministry of OCW, and the CDA (Christian Democrat party) has consistently opposed this. The left-wing PvdA and the conservative VVD lean towards D66’s point of view – but not quite yet, says the PvdA. The VVD wants additional funding for green education and thinks that money should come from the ministry of OCW. But then you get a discussion about money every year between two ministries. The VVD parliamentary party, which played a key role in getting a majority behind the motion, will make a decision mid-November. The majority of VVD MPs want to see green education transferred to OCW, and that is how there was suddenly a majority in the House. The motion was tabled extremely fast, to many people’s surprise.
Green education motion
The parliamentary parties of D66, the Christian Union, the VVD, the Green left and the Socialist Party adopted the motion that green education should be transferred from the Ministry of Economic Affairs (EZ) to the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). The parties want to bring the costs per student of green and regular education in line, and they think the easiest way to do that is for them to be financed from a single budget. The parties also claim that the Verkenning Sectoronderwijs, a report on sector-specific education in the Netherlands, shows that there is no reason to treat green education any differently to any other kind of education. They do however feel that if green education moves to OCW it must retains its embedding (continuous learning trajectories and strong links with the business world), which serves as an inspiration for the whole education sector.’
Responses to the motion within the green education sector reflect its divisions. Wageningen University, the agricultural applied sciences institutions and the agricultural vocational training colleges (AOCs) are united in their objections to the cuts in green education made by the Ministry of EZ. Last year these cuts came to about 15 million euros but were reduced after protest. For 2016 they have risen to almost 40 million.
Bu whereas the university wishes to remain with EZ, many AOCs no longer trust this ministry to defend their interests. So while the university is lobbying informally against the implementation of the motion, the AOCs are in favour of it. They assume that the education ministry will withdraw the imposed cut of 28 million, so they will not have to make cuts. The university wants rid of the two percent ruling which limits the growth of its budget, and sees in the document on sector education that the Ministry of EZ is prepared to do that. So it thinks EZ can solve its problems.
Wageningen UR’s position
There are also substantial reasons for staying with this ministry. For Wageningen UR, consisting as it does of the university and DLO, one national policymaker and financier is better and more efficient than two. If the university and DLO were funded by different ministries, the much-acclaimed integration between the university and the research institutes and the collaboration with the ministry in the ‘golden triangle’ would be threatened with collapse, fears the executive board.
The close collaboration between the university and DLO under a single board looks like a permanent fixture, but is far from it. There were proposals circulating in The Hague last year to bring all the applied research institutes – TNO, DLO, Deltares, ECN and Marin – under one board. As a result the executive board would no longer direct both the university and DLO, but DLO, TNO and other institutes would come under one national governing body. This ‘Grand Design’ never made it to the status of official proposal but transferring the university to the Ministry of Education could breathe new life into it. In their response to the motion the Wageningen directors wrote that ‘a wedge is being driven into the current collaboration between academic education and applied research’. They are afraid that The Hague is pulling the rug out from under Wageningen UR’s feet.
The ball is in the cabinet’s court now. Will the brand-new state secretary for EZ Martijn van Dam implement the motion and make preparations for transferring green education to the education ministry? That remains to be seen. His predecessor Sharon Dijksma was against it, and so was Prime Minister Rutte last year. Perhaps the cabinet will give its verdict next week at the debate on the agriculture budget in the Lower House. But perhaps this too requires further thought because the ministers do not see eye to eye. In that case green education will be haunted by hopes and fears for a while longer.