Organisation - October 30, 2012

Coalition agreement: good news for nature, bad for students

After barely 50 days of talks, the VVD (centre right) and PvdA (centre left) now have their coalition agreement. What are the implications for research, teaching and Wageningen's domains?

Motto for the new cabinet: 'Building bridges'
State secretary Bleker's nature policy has been severely reworked. For example, the ecological main structure will go ahead after all, complete with connecting zones, although more time is being allowed for its creation. There had already been a reversal of 200 million in planned cuts; that money is now being earmarked for existing nature. Finally, the Hedwige polder in Zeeland will be flooded.
'Indeed, I'm very pleased with this document,' says Frank Berendse, professor of Nature Conservation and Plant Ecology. Reading between the lines, he sees even more positive signs. For instance, the agreement says that Bleker's nature protection bill, which had been declared officially 'controversial' (and therefore on hold), 'will be amended'. Berendse hopes these amendments will draw on 'Beautiful Netherlands', the bill proposed by the left-wing parties D66, PvdA and GL, which he advised on. This bill offers better protection for species and for more areas than just the Natura 2000 areas. 'In that sense it is a good think that we will now get a PvdA state secretary [Co Verdaas] after the CDA disaster in the form of Bleker,' says Berendse. 'I just think it's a pity that Nature will stay with the ministry of Economic Affairs, (Agriculture and Innovation) rather than moving to Infrastructure and the Environment.'
Not much on agriculture
The renewed attention being paid to nature seems to be at the expense of agriculture. For example, the ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture Innovation will lose the last two parts of its name and go back to being Economic Affairs. 'I'm not surprised at that,' says Jakob Jager, agriculture and economics researcher at the LEI. 'That trend started when Agriculture was transferred to Economic Affairs. It isn't necessarily a bad thing for farming.'
The coalition agreement itself only mentions 'agriculture' twice, often in general, rather vague terms. The coalition plans to reduce the EU's agriculture (and cohesion) budget further. In addition, farmers will have to collaborate with other organizations in boosting animal welfare. Jager thinks it is only to be expected that there are no ambitious plans. Policy is largely decided in Brussels and there have already been major reforms in recent years.
The coalition agreement does include some compliments for the agro-sector. It mentions the huge export of agricultural goods and the way the sector ensures innovation. What is more, 'farmers and market gardeners deserve to be given room for entrepreneurship and should be rewarded for their contributions to the landscape and nature.' There is plenty of potential when filling in the specifics of those fine intentions, thinks Jager. Without the specifics, they will simply remain fine intentions.
Students as cash cow
'The new cabinet has turned its back on higher education,' fumes the student union LSVb in response to the coalition agreement. There are indeed painful measures in store for students. The interim agreement had some good news - the abolition of the slow student fine. However, the basic grant is set to disappear in 2014 and be replaced by a social loan system - something both the VVD and the PvdA wanted. The supplementary grant will remain (although it will no longer be supplementing anything) as an allowance for poorer students.
But the politicians pulled one unexpected measure out of the hat. As of 2015, the public transport student card will be replaced by a discount card that is also available for vocational college students. It will be possible to take out a loan for travel costs under the terms of the new loan system. Finally, 20 million will be made available to compensate for the negative effects of higher tuition fees for a second degree. There will be no further implementation of selective admissions procedures. These will only be allowed for degrees with a fixed number of places, University Colleges and degrees with specific admission requirements such as art courses.
More basic research
There will be 150 million extra for basic research; 100 million is 'new' money while the other 50 million will come from somewhere else in the budget. But note that cuts of 500 million were already planned in 2015 for the research budget. This money was from the natural gas revenues. That means the net effect for research is still a cut of 400 million.
It is not clear where the extra research money will be found. The abolition of the basic grant will not be enough in the short term. It will yield around 15 million in 2016, and 55 million the year after that. Eventually it should lead to savings of 800 million a year. Money is being shifted around for applied research as well. A sum of 110 million is being provided to foster collaboration between science institutions and businesses. On the other hand, cutbacks are planned in the tax subsidies for businesses.