Organisation - November 18, 2009

Paving new education pathways

In order for higher education to become full-fledged, the government has to recognize and finance profession-oriented Master's courses. Graduates of universities of applied sciences (HBO) will then attain a full status. A foretaste of the work of the Veerman Commission.

A case in point. The education institute of Wageningen University wants to combine three MSc courses. The courses Hydrology and Water Quality, Meteorology & Air Quality and Soil Science have to be fused into a new course from September 2011 with the working title Earth and Biosphere. The university task force Earth Sciences has recently compiled a report in which the outlines of the new course are described. 'The aim is to have an academic Master's course.  HBO subjects are not included in the new course', says programme director Theo Lexmond. 'As a result, courses that are highly regarded by students and employers, such as the subject Technical Concepts in Water Engineering, are not included in this academic Master's.
  Lexmond then got in touch with Jos Wintermans, programme director of Land & Water Management at Van Hall Larenstein (VHL) in Velp with the question: Can we include this course by turning it into a profession-oriented Master's in the area of technical water management? 'The job market needs technical water managers and this is right up our alley', says Lexmond. 'I think that VHL would have to shoulder most of the workload. The university can provide the building blocks. But I have not yet received an answer to my proposal.'
Prepare the ground
Wintermans wants to do so, but cannot as yet. 'I see this as an opportunity but we need to prepare the ground.' He points to the cost model for higher education. The government does not finance HBO Master's except in a few cases. It's not feasible if the students have to pay for the complete education. Our plan can only succeed if the government is convinced that this new professional Master's caters to a big market demand and that market forces will eventually be the ones who would pay for the students' education.
  Content-wise, the Velp education director sees a future for the course. Right up to a few years ago, he had offered a Master's course in the area of water management, accreditated by the Open University in England. The arrangement with the Open University ended when VHL came under Wageningen UR, and with it, the course ended too. 'My plan is to have a MSc. with a strong professional character, offered by Wageningen UR, administered by VHL, and with building blocks from the university. But the Executive Board said: That doesn't fit in with our course programmes. The course would also not meet the criteria of the Dutch accreditation organ which has to recognize it.' If this is to succeed, Wintermans concludes, the government has to finance the HBO Master's.
  To this effect, he is advising Cees Veerman, who is appointed by Minister of Education Plasterk to examine the education system. Plasterk wants the universities and applied sciences universities to offer more variety in its courses to cater to the diverse education needs of students. Among Veerman's tasks is to find out if the current education system stands in the way of this variety.
  The system with Bachelor's and Master's courses actually offers many possibilities and flexibility for students. This is the opinion of many education directors in the applied sciences university and the university. Wintermans has therefore joined forces with Wageningen professor Arnold Bregt in the area of geo-information. 'We already offer a combined Minor-subject and are exploring the possibility for a combined Major-specialization', says Wintermans. Director Hans Hardus in Leeuwarden also praises this cooperation with the Wageningen GIS group. He also applauds the excellent cooperation with the Wageningen course Management of Marine Ecosystems.
Added value
Programme director Rene Kwakkel of the university has, together with VHL, developed a follow-up Minor for HBO graduates in Animal Husbandry and Management. 'This has been very successful. The students get a taste of the university in doing a Minor, and 95 percent of them continue to do a MSc later.' Kwakkel feels that a one-year profession-oriented Master's course can be offered in the university of applied sciences, in which even university students can participate after their Bachelor's courses. 'We have discussed this before with VHL. However, we have to show the added value of such a course to the accreditation organ.'
  What holds back such joint efforts is the approval and financing of new training pathways. The ideal situation is that the university produces researchers, while the applied sciences university provides training for the professions. What happens, however, is that about a quarter of university graduates end up in research while the rest go in search of jobs in a company or engineering firm. This big group should have followed a HBO Master's instead of an academic education. But who should pay and who should receive the college fees and diploma subsidies later on?
  In developing new education pathways, universities and applied sciences universities compete for recognition and money. The core of the problem, according to programme director Hans Hardus in Leeuwarden, is that education institutions are paid per certificate. 'Universities and applied sciences universities were not competitors, until market forces took hold within education. The managements want to expand; the lecturers bear the brunt of the consequences. The government should pay for quality and not productivity. Shall we raise the level again? We could stop fancy studies such as Europe and Communication Science, the university could revert to its core business and we could again focus on the job market.'
'Ultimately, the bottleneck is course costing', says programme director Hans van Rooijen in Velp. 'But behind such costing is a vision developed by ministers such as Ritzen and Plasterk - people from the scientific world. In this vision, a HBO Bachelor's degree is not on equal footing with a university Bachelor's degree. Moreover, we cannot have a Master's course, while the universities can.' His colleague Wintermans reiterates: 'We need a cost model which recognizes the HBO Master's.'
  Ab Groen, director of Education and Research at Wageningen UR, agrees. He is impressed by the efforts of Lexmond to achieve a profession-oriented Master's together with the applied sciences university. 'The Executive Board wants to have integrated education institutes, to provide for education pathways differentiated on the basis of final examinations.  A full and legally recognized HBO education pathway, with a HBO Master's course and job-oriented graduates, also belongs here, as well as the academic education pathway. Both are necessary.'
  You do need to define the two main education pathways very clearly, Groen says. In the academic education pathway, you learn and acquire skills to develop new knowledge. In the HBO education pathway, you use the knowledge. If this is established, you would be able to pave flexible links between these two education pathways.
Inquisitive and intelligent students in a HBO Bachelor's course could undertake a preparatory course package and then go on to do an academic study. Whereas academic students who do not want to continue doing research could switch to a HBO Master's course. Combinations for individual students could even be devised, says Groen, but the big question would then be: what would be stated on the certificate?
  Groen thinks that the difference between HBO and WO certificates could then be removed. 'One certificate for higher education, with a supplement showing what the student has done.' The difference in costing among the institutions would also have to go, he feels. 'You would then be financing academic and applied sciences courses, and the amount would depend on the costs of the learning environment.'
  Recognition and financing of the different courses by the government are major conditions which the Veerman commission has to resolve, Groen feels. But changes have to take place too in the educators, he stresses. 'What's inside the heads of the people is important. If you think that an applied sciences university produces less qualified students and the university, better ones, it would be difficult to even out the barriers. You should think of students having different learning goals and this difference has to be expressed in the final exams.'