Nieuws - 4 april 2011

Students intend legal action on fines

Charging extra tuition fees to students taking too long over their degrees is unlawful. If State Secretary Zijlstra’s proposed new law is adopted, student organizations will go to court.

The Dutch government is planning to charge students extra tuition fees once they have extended their period of study by more than one year for both Bachelor's and Master's programmes. Instead of 1672 euros, they will have to pay 4672 euros. The punitive fees would be charged to students already in 'overtime' now. Student organizations are furious about the plans and 20,000 students have already demonstrated against it in The Hague.
Student organizations ISO, LSVb and LKvK have now sought advice from the legal firm Stibbe, which produced a detailed report for them. Zijlstra's proposal is on very shaky ground, according to the lawyers.
Some of the criticisms are already known. One point made by the lawyers is that the law conflicts with the principle of legal certainty, since it is to apply retroactively. Students who have already extended their period of study could not possibly take this rule into consideration, but are nevertheless to be charged the extra fees. And there is no hardship clause either. Yet in Zilstra's view it would be unfair to exempt current students and only charge new students.
What is less familiar are the arguments related to international treaties which the lawyers bring into play. For example, the Netherlands has ratified the 'international treaty on economic, social and cultural rights', which states that higher education should be made accessible to all by 'gradually phasing in free education.' But with these measures, the Netherlands is heading in the opposite direction, claim the lawyers.
The raised tuition fees also seem suspiciously like a 'fine' or punitive measure: after all, the cabinet hopes they will have a preventive effect, and like a fine, the extra fees are not tax-deductible. If they really are a form of fine, then they are in contravention of the European Treaty of Human Rights. This treaty states that people cannot be condemned for an action retroactively, if it was not punishable at the time.
The new law is also thought to contravene the principle of freedom of movement within the European Union, as it is to apply to students from other EU countries as well. The government should have looked into whether the movements of European citizens are impeded by this fine, say the lawyers.
They are also concerned about discrimination. The law does not make any distinction between fulltime and part-time students, which it ought to do: different cases cannot be treated the same way. Also, some degree programmes are tougher than others, so that students of some subjects might be more severely affected by the law than others.
The proposed law is due to be debated in parliament next Thursday. The students have asked parliament not to pass the law. If it is passed, then the student organizations will be going to court.