Nieuws - 27 januari 2011

Birthday bash for Halbe Zijlstra

An interview with Sate secretary Zijlstra about his proposed cuts on higher education. He understands the reason for the student protest last friday. And why professors in togas are striding around the Hofvijver. But he says he won't change his course radically unless there are good arguments to do so.

15,000 students demonstrated on 21 January against the plans of the state secretary.
He saw thousands of students protesting against him on the Malieveld last Friday, which happened to be his birthday. Earlier on that day, more than a third of the professors in The Netherlands did the same. All because of funding cuts in higher education and research. From 2012 to 2014, universities and applied sciences universities have to make do with a total of 420 million euros less in education funding. In addition, the additional research subsidies from natural gas revenues will be withdrawn. These spending cuts are vital in reducing the state debt, says Zijstra, but they also open the way to other opportunities. 'Would we have dared to make fundamental new decisions if we had not been forced to do so financially? You can have too much money and try to solve problems by throwing money at them.'
Won't you know what to do with an extra billion?
'Of course I would, but that's not the point. You shouldn't be settling everything with money. An example: For years, the universities were in discord. New universities received proportionately less funding than the older universities, which didn't want to just give up their privileged position. This dispute was then settled by giving all universities more money. All of them. In that way, you avoid answering the fundamental question as to what is good research and where it is done.'
What would make you change your mind? What else is there for your opponents to do?
'Give me good factual arguments why my actions aren't possible. I haven't heard any yet. And give me alternatives - that'll help too.'
The universities say that at least five thousand employees will lose their jobs because of the funding cuts.
'Yes, and board chairman Roelof de Wijkerslooth of the Radboud University says that he has to lower the standard of education. I think that'll be pretty pathetic. And not necessary at all. The institutions have more choices available.'
Such as?
'There has been an explosive increase in the number of degree programmes in the past decade. Why offer so many programmes in so many cities? The institutions should work together and also review what they are each good in. Clustering can be a major way to reduce costs.'
Isn't all such working together bad for creating the competitive edge which liberals strongly advocate?
'No, because we are competing nowadays with the entire world. We don't perform within Dutch territory anymore. We're part of an international rat race. That's why we should spend our money wisely. You can dole out two halves or one whole. We have to attain more heights. This is also the case when we want to get European research subsidies: we should join forces because funds are given to big clusters of research institutions. That again would have an impact on their standard of education. All these are connected.'
What else can the institutions do to cut costs?
'They can also scrap a management level. If they reach a negative situation, they still have their reserves. I'm not saying: you have a reserve, so use it. But it's an immediate call to them to get rid of their staff. We have to look beyond 2012. The dip in the funding will only be in the first two years. From 2014 onwards, the budget for the institutions will be about the same again, due to investments. After 2015, it will even go up. But all these will depend on the student estimates.'
How did the cabinet actually arrive at the figure of 370 million as the amount to be saved in higher education per year? Why not double or half this amount?
'The average cost per student is now six thousand euros. The current number of long-term students multiplied by six thousand euros is about 370 million. Institutions and these students will each pay half of this. The money will go partly to other education sectors first and be ploughed back almost entirely into higher education from 2015. As such, the budget for the other students will in fact be higher.'
Are you not afraid of a 'perverse incentive'? Wouldn't universities and applied sciences universities be tempted to lower the requirements for expensive long-term students?
'I hope not, although the idea did cross our minds. We do have the Dutch Inspectorate of Education and the Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Organization (NVAO) to oversee the standards. In the new accreditation system, which is implemented for the first time in 2011, there will be a stricter control of the final standard for graduates.
Students have to pay more tuition fees when they prolong their studies, but they're not supposed to know which MSc programmes enable them to graduate faster and which do not. Why is this information not available yet?
'Because the harde knip between BSc and MSc programmes hasn't been implemented everywhere yet. As such, the statistics can't be compared evenly.'
But the MSc programmes have been around for years. Isn't this information already available?
'You should talk to my predecessors. It's actually a question of political will. There wasn't a majority supporting the nationwide compulsory harde knip. My predecessor Ronald Plasterk did finally convince parliament that the cut is needed and for this, he deserves a compliment.'
One of the things which Plasterk wanted was performance-related funding in higher education. But he could not come up with any good criterion, he said later. How are you going to pay for quality, as stated in the coalition agreement?
'I have some ideas as to what to do, but you'll see them in due course. Anyway, in Plasterk's time, 'extra' money from the kitty was apportioned to higher education institutions on the basis of quality. I thought: if extra money can do the work, then the basic funding should do it too. It's perhaps more painful this way, but it's about the quality of education. Autonomy for institutions is very good, but it also has its limits.'
What will happen to the stimulation measures for immigrant students or female professors?
'Those are still under review. I have never been an advocate of target group policies. The government cannot solve problems for each and every exception. I think that exception policy is partly to blame for disappointments in politics: it reinforces the idea that you can remove all the problems for every group. We cannot do that, and we need to make that clear. We want to have as few exceptions to the rule as possible.'
'We will also be taking this line when it comes to modernizing study funds. We will then simplify these immediately. The number of exceptional cases will be reduced. We will continue to make an exception for handicap students: they will get an extra year in the extended-study regulation. We will continue with supplementary scholarships for students of low income parents. I don't want to anticipate any more of our plans now. Just take a look at the other existing exceptions yourself.'
You studied at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and the University of Groningen. Did you want to change anything then?
'I had 32 contact hours at the university of applied sciences and only six to eight at the university. I found that somewhat unbalanced. Besides that, I wasn't much involved in the system of higher education. In any case, I took six years and four months to finish my studies and therefore, I ought to have paid extra tuition fees. But I think I would have graduated earlier in that case.'

Halbe Zijlstra

Halbe Zijlstra was born on 21 January 1969 in Oosterwolde in Friesland. After pre-university secondary education, he studied commercial economics at the Groningen Hanze University of Applied Sciences (completed this in 1994) and Sociology at the University of Groningen (obtained PhD in 1996).
He moved to live in Utrecht where he became a member of the municipal council for the Dutch liberal party the VVD in 1998. From 1996, he had been an account manager in car leasing company Arval and a project manager in various companies. In 2001, he became an freelance project manager for Shell in South Europe and Latin America.
He became party chairman of the VVD in Utrecht in 2004, and a parliament member of the Dutch Lower House in 2006. He was the spokesperson for higher education and science for the VVD for three years. He passed this portfolio at the end of 2009 to his new colleague Mark Harbers.
Zijlstra was appointed state secretary of Education, Culture and Science in Rutte's cabinet in 2010. Besides higher education, science and teacher policy, his portfolio also includes culture. Zijlstra is married and likes to cycle, travel and read.
'I have never been an advocate for target group policies. The government cannot solve problems for each and every exception.'