Yesterday, the Dutch Upper House approved the fine for students taking too long and higher tuition fees for top-notch degree programmes. State Secretary Zijlstra got most criticism for his position that part-time students should complete their studies just as quickly as full-time students.
Thom de Graaf, the brand-new senator for D66 (a liberal party) and a former minister, spoke out against the act dealing with tardy students but knew it would be in vain: he thought the act would definitely be passed. The parties took their customary positions yesterday. The government parties and the two parties supporting the coalition, PVV (right-wing party) and SGP (Protestant party), gave their support to the Cabinet while the opposition grumbled.
For instance, members of the opposition criticized the speed with which the tardy student act had been chased through parliament. ‘My party is unhappy with the powerplay within the Education, Culture and Science Committee', said Socialist Party member Eric Smaling, who is also a professor at Twente University. He thought the members should be united across party boundaries in taking due care, and he would have liked to have had a little more time to consider the act.
Nearly all parties asked questions about the implications for part-time students in academic higher education. Why should they have to complete their degrees just as quickly as full-time students? Surely the fact that this is a small group, as Zijlstra is emphasizing, does not mean the government can simply disregard them, asked his fellow party member Anne-Wil Duthler rhetorically.
All the other parties agreed with this. The government is not taking this point sufficiently seriously, said Ruard Ganzevoort of the Green Left party, who is also a professor of practical theology at the VU University Amsterdam. According to him, it was a particularly bad thing for academic education. The people concerned are a small group of students who put in a great deal of effort to combine studying for a degree with work and family. ‘It is a fantastic achievement if these students can get their degree in five, six or seven years, but this Cabinet labels them tardy students.'
Zijlstra did not really want to make any concessions. He said he was afraid of an escape route: students on the verge of officially becoming ‘tardy' would register for a part-time degree in order to avoid the excess tuition fees. He really did not see how he could prevent this, although the CDA (Christian Democrats) urged him to do so (‘Debates are there to bring people closer together'). He even rejected the idea proposed by his ‘own' VVD party to only allow a part-time degree without excess tuition fees for students taking too long if they are aged over thirty.
He thought institutions should not simply allocate twice the number of years for their part-time degrees as for the full-time equivalent. Perhaps the part-time degrees could be completed more quickly. According to him, the only problem was in academic higher education as part-time students at universities of applied science do not take any longer than full-time students.
The heart of the problem is the definition of part-time student. ‘The legislation does not really have much of a definition', said the State Secretary. Part-time students do not qualify for student grants, but there is not much more than that. According to him, the advantage of this is that the institutions have a great deal of freedom and that is why he did not want to make any promises about tinkering with the definition.
The only promise he was willing to make was for a ‘wide-ranging debate' about part-time students. He would send a review of the subject to Parliament before the end of the year. Then he would still be able to tackle the problem if it seemed possible and made sense. That satisfied Senator Anne-Wil Duthler of the VVD. Her colleague Essers of the CDA was also satisfied, although he emphatically called the consequences of the tardy students act ‘disproportionate' for the small group of part-time students in academic higher education.
Green Left wanted to ‘go just one small step further' and proposed a motion calling on the government to make sure the measures to deal with students taking too long would not have an excessive impact on part-time students. The motion was carried unanimously.
The Socialist Party and Green Left in particular had nothing good to say about the other bill, Making the Way Clear for Talent. The best education was threatening to become the privilege of an elite, they said scornfully. The PvdA (labour party), which had been responsible for this bill in the previous cabinet, also asked a question about it: how can you avoid a situation where children from poorer families do not apply for small-scale top-notch degree programmes purely because they are put off by the higher tuition fees.
State Secretary Zijlstra said that would not be sensible because they can simply borrow the money for the tuition fees. Anyway, institutions are allowed to give poor students exemption from the high tuition fees for such small-scale, top-notch programmes: that is what happens throughout the world at expensive institutions. That answer satisfied a clear majority, including the PvdA.
The parties also discussed less weighty matters. For instance, CDA member Essers wanted to know how Zijlstra would make sure that institutions provide students with proper information. If a company issues shares, the prospectus for investors has to meet stringent requirements, so why should there not be a few rules for education institutions?
A nice comparison, said Zijlstra, but he did not want to impose too many rules. The Cabinet allows the option of intake interviews, he replied. That should enable all the relevant information to be revealed. Incidentally, the Education and Examination Regulations also set out the minimum requirements for a degree programme and students can take legal action if a degree programme does not deliver on its promises.
The Making the Way Clear for Talent bill was eventually passed without a vote although some parties registered their opposition to the bill. In addition to the Socialist Party and Green Left, these were the Independent Senate Party and the senior citizens' party 50Plus.