The objective of getting 50 percent of secondary school leavers through higher education is not an end in itself but a means to an end, repeated secretary of state Zijlstra again on Sunday afternoon. Good quality education is more important.
It is not the first time the politician has made this point. Last year he said during a debate in the lower house of parliament that the 50 percent objective was 'relative'. 'I can make sure that tomorrow 100 percent of Dutch professionals have higher education, just by changing the definition.'
Zijlstra insists that the quality of university education is not under pressure. Earlier this month it became known that the Technical University of Delft wanted to reduce the requirements for Bachelor's programmes, but according to Zijlstra, Delft is simply reviewing its curriculum. The Bachelor's programmes in certain science subjects became overloaded when the Dutch system went over to the Bachelor / Master structure, he claims. 'It is a good thing that they are now selecting courses that fit the programme.'
The audience wanted to know where Zijlstra might make cuts if it turns out that the cabinet needs to economize more. He did not want to answer this question. 'If I come up with a list of budget cut proposals now, I'll lose the money.' He wanted to wait for the prognoses of the Central Economic Policy Analysis bureau CPB in February. 'Only when the water is up to our lips should we think again.' The politician could not promise that higher education would be spared any additional budget cuts. 'But I can say to the minister of Finance: not in my department. But we have to see this in the light of the debt crisis.'
A student wanted to know what the current plans to streamline higher education are going to mean for students. Zijlstra: 'We have to use the resources we have smartly and efficiently.' That could mean that a degree programme that only attracts few students is offered at fewer institutions. 'Students will have to travel more often in future, but then they will get world-class education.'
Volkskrant journalist Maartje Bakker revealed in a column how she was handed her points on a plate, how flimsy the honours programme was that she followed, and how a six gained at another university was upgraded to a seven by her institution, without anyone batting an eyelid. That gave her more chance of graduating cum laude. Zijlstra: 'If a student notices that the quality of his programme is below par, he should go to the examination board, and not complain later.'