Jet Bussemaker would not want to be Minister of Education again at any cost. She looks back with satisfaction and hopes the next cabinet will not dismantle her legacy. ‘If you bring back the basic grant, all the investments will be reversed.’
photo: Heukers Media / Shutterstock
Time is nearly up for Jet Bussemaker. She has been Minister of Education, Culture and Science for the left-wing PvdA for four years now, and elections are approaching. The big question is what will happen to her policy after the election, and in particular to the loan system – the ‘student advance’ – which Bussemaker introduced. New students no longer receive a basic grant, so the government saves hundreds of millions which it can invest in higher education. ‘It is the biggest reform in higher education financing in the past 30 years,’ says Bussemaker proudly.
Some parties, such as the Christian democratic CDA and the socialist SP, want to bring back the basic grant after the elections. Bussemaker doesn’t have a good word to say for that. ‘I cannot imagine the CDA would really do that. Then all the investments would have to be reversed and free public transport for students would not be safe anymore. And the SP is always full of talk but five years ago that party wanted to save 800 million euros on education at a stroke. Which doesn’t seem a good idea to me either.’
Bussemaker avows that she does not close her eyes to the sharp edges of her policy. ‘It’s fair enough to tackle me on the consequences for handicapped students or young people whose parents didn’t have a higher education. Next year more young people will be going into higher education and that is positive, but we will continue to keep an eye on how these groups of students are faring.’
Bussemaker would like the ‘propaganda talk’ to stop now. ‘In the discussion about the student advance a lot of sweeping statements were made about where it would all lead. I once met some vocational training students who were out with SP youth. They were all under the impression that their basic grant was going to be scrapped too. Had they got the wrong end of the stick or had they been deliberately misled?’
It is not about politics anymore now, she thinks. ‘It’s important that we inform students well. There is room for improvement there. We have hired vloggers, placed advertisements, sent letters, and held Skype meetings. But it turns out to be very difficult to get through to all young people. There are still some who think that in the old days you didn’t have to borrow at all and now you have to borrow everything. And it’s a pity if they don’t dare to go to university because of that.’
That is the danger of her opponents’ hollow rhetoric, suggests the minister. But she used a rhetorical trick herself, too. She is still talking about one billion euros that will be freed up by the loan system, even though that is only the case for one year, and then only if you also count an uncertain saving of 200 million euros on travel costs for students. But that is a very different matter, says Bussemaker. ‘I choose my words carefully. It is an amount of up to one billion euros. We assume that we can save that 200 million on the student travel passes. That is part of it.’
If Bussemaker does not expect a return of the basic grant after 15 March, what does she think is in store for higher education? ‘The biggest decision is whether you want to invest or not. Is the student travel pass to be scrapped? Are we going to bring back a penalty for taking a long time over a degree?’
And not unimportantly: how do the parties look at higher education? ‘There are parties who see a degree primarily as a job ticket. The CDA and the VVD want to look more carefully at which degrees prepare students for a job, and they want to push funding towards the technical universities, because that is good for the economy. But we should protect the small language degrees, for example, too. I do think the small degree programmes should collaborate more, but they should be kept. Arabic, for instance. We need people who speak the language of the Middle East. Or Ebola in Africa: we need anthropologists who understand how you can stop the disease spreading. I think it’s great when Delft students invent something splendid, but higher education shouldn’t all be about that.’
The way universities and applied science institutions are funded in future is at stake too. Should they have to meet hard quality criteria? Is their funding withdrawn if they fall short? This is how it has been going recently with ‘performance targets’. Six applied science universities had to hand back some of their budget because too few of their students had got their degree. The next cabinet will decide whether that continues. ‘Perhaps it’s better to hold out prospects of a bonus than of a penalty’, wonders Bussemaker. ‘Those targets weren’t of my making, you know. They were my predecessor’s doing.’ That was VVD secretary of state Halbe Zijlstra.
Asked whether she would like to be minister of Education again in the next cabinet, Bussemaker points to the polls for the PvdA. ‘I think the chances are pretty slim. You’ve got to be realistic. And it also depends on the coalition agreement we end up with. I am not going to be part of a cabinet that sells off science and transfers it to the ministry of Economic Affairs.’
But what about the National Science Agenda Bussemaker has launched? Surely that was supposed to ensure a shift from fundamental to applied science? Thousands of questions from citizens, the business world and institutions are reduced to a few ‘routes’. ‘The good thing is precisely that we are linking fundamental research with applied research,’ replies the minister. ‘With this agenda we emphasize the value of independent science. Some ideas can be of use to society, but many discoveries certainly did not happen because people were looking for them.’
More funding will be needed during the next government’s term, says the minister. ‘Everyone recognizes that the Netherlands doesn’t have many resources except knowledge. Everything is in place to invest very heavily in that. We are in a very strong position.’