Robbert Dijkgraaf: ‘Should you channel students’ freedom of choice?’

What will higher education look like in the year 2040? Outgoing Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf published his long-awaited Foresight Study. It’s time to talk.

Dijkgraaf on a working visit. (Photo: Ministry of Education, Culture & Sciences)

As far as he was concerned, there was no need for the cabinet to resign, says outgoing Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66). “I still very much regret that it happened.” Now serving in a caretaker capacity, he is no longer able to introduce new policy. That’s the prerogative of the parties that will govern after the elections.

Nevertheless, his long-awaited Foresight Study is still being published today. In it, researchers take a closer look at the uncertain future of vocational education, higher education and scientific research in the Netherlands. They outline three possible paths, arguing that future policymakers will have to choose between focusing on the labour market, societal issues or individual freedom.

Wrong signal
“The cabinet’s resignation is a defeat”, says Dijkgraaf in his office in the Hoftoren, in The Hague. “Everywhere in society, we ask people to work things out together, including in education. It’s part of the Dutch tradition of polderen – of making an effort to reach a consensus. And then you’ve got a cabinet that says: we can’t find common ground. In my opinion, that just sends the wrong signal.”

The stumbling block that brought down the government was the issue of migration, which overlaps with part of Dijkgraaf’s own portfolio, namely higher education. After preparing a bill to control the influx of international students – which has even been published online to collect feedback – he was unable to make a decision on tuition fees for refugees.

‘The broader public discussion on migration also affects education’

This meant that Dijkgraaf could occasionally be seen biting his tongue, unable to speak his mind. Migration seemed to be a difficult issue for him to navigate. “You’re right”, he admits. “The broader public discussion on migration also affects education, for instance when it comes to international students, refugees or people who have been displaced because of the war in Ukraine. The scale may be smaller, but that doesn’t make things any less complicated. It’s always a kind of balancing act.”

Universities are currently under pressure due to high enrolments, which is contributing to housing shortages. But at the same time, Dijkgraaf stresses, international students offer great added value. “Plus, with some students, there are humanitarian factors to consider: you also want the Netherlands to be a safe haven for people who need help.”

Foresight Study
But today, the main focus is on the Foresight Study Minister Dijkgraaf is sending to the House of Representatives. What role will the document play moving forward? Things are not working out the way he had hoped, he acknowledges.

“This should have been the first stage of a rocket, propelled by ideas collected from the sector – we explicitly didn’t want them to be my ideas, or the ministry’s or the coalition’s. It was important to us to give everyone in the sector a chance to share their thoughts, which were then analysed by independent researchers to identify common threads. So this report doesn’t say: do this and that. The second stage of the rocket is the part where you start making choices.”

Now, that part will be out of his hands, he writes in a letter to the House of Representatives, which mainly summarises the topics that seem urgent to him, as well as the broad choices policymakers will be faced with. More detailed information on funding changes and other possible interventions will be shared later to help make discussions more concrete.

Student freedom
The biggest dilemma seems to be how to balance students’ freedom of choice with the needs of society at large. “Education has a kind of triple word value, like in Scrabble”, says Dijkgraaf. “Because it’s good for the economy, for society and for individual people.”

But sometimes, what benefits the collective can be at odds with personal freedom. If society needs teachers, nurses and engineers, how do you get students to choose those fields? “One important fact to take into account is that there will soon be more jobs than people”, Dijkgraaf notes. “We’re probably about to enter a period of structural labour shortages. Then the question becomes: should we still allow young people to make their own career decisions? Or do you want to channel their freedom of choice?”

‘It’s about students finding their place in the world’

This is not an entirely new dilemma. Medicine programmes, for instance, have had restricted enrolment for a long time. But there is a difference, Dijkgraaf believes. “Medicine is a popular programme that’s also very expensive, which is why we align the number of available spots each year with the number of doctors we need. But we’re not limiting enrolment in medicine programmes to get more people to pursue a physics degree, let’s say.”

If the government did want to do that, it would have to institute enrolment caps for programmes that do not cater to sectors facing labour shortages. But Dijkgraaf does not see this happening in higher education any time soon. “In general, I think that discussion is currently more relevant when it comes to vocational education.” Vocational students in particular may need to be discouraged from making choices that will hurt their chances of finding employment, the Minister believes, as they are more vulnerable than higher education graduates.

One in seven students
But universities, too, seem to want to restrict students’ freedom of choice. Recently, a former rector magnificus estimated that roughly 15 percent of research university students would fare better at a university of applied sciences. Universities are also calling for more stable funding, as this would allow them to admit fewer students.

That would mean selecting at the gate, but that’s another subject Dijkgraaf is hesitant to comment on. He says the main challenge is to help students discover where they belong. “You can also create more flexible learning pathways, to make it a bit easier for students to switch programmes. Then, if someone’s not successful in one form of education, there’s a proper way for them to make that transition.”

You have to be careful when it comes to making big changes anyway, Dijkgraaf warns, because the current Dutch higher education system is easily accessible while also offering high quality and good job prospects. “Some people call it a ‘trilemma’, which suggests those three can’t go in hand in hand, but that isn’t the case at all. One of the great things about our education system is that the right secondary school diploma should, in principle, offer access to vocational colleges, universities of applied sciences and research universities.”

Which brings Dijkgraaf to one of his favourite topics, the ‘education fan’. According to the Minister, vocational colleges, universities of applied sciences and research universities should be visualised side by side, like a fan. Too often, people believe that one is higher or lower than the other. Dijkgraaf continues to stress that we need to stop thinking like that.

‘We reinstated the basic student grant, which promotes equal opportunities in education’

Empty rhetoric, some might say – as long as doctors earn more than nurses, you can hardly blame parents who want their kids to get into VWO, the Dutch secondary school system’s pre-university track.

“Ultimately, the salaries aren’t the same”, Dijkgraaf says. “That’s true. But that’s the case among university graduates as well. A banker or dentist earns more than an entry-level teacher. So there are big differences. But there are also vocational programmes that produce graduates who end up earning more than some people with a university diploma. It’s about students finding their place in the world and becoming the best version of themselves. So you don’t want them to feel like succeeding at that can somehow be seen as a failure.”

Changes at universities of applied sciences
While universities are struggling to accommodate the influx of new students, universities of applied sciences expect to see an enrolment slump. Wouldn’t it make sense to introduce a new kind of university to bridge the gap between the two and offer a more attractive proposition to VWO graduates?

“I’m not going to share my personal opinion”, Dijkgraaf replies, referring to his caretaker status, “but these kinds of variants are suggested in the Foresight Study.” At the same time, the report also points to the enormous diversity within higher education, he stresses. You could also develop these kinds of variants within the existing institutions, just as you could expand the secondary vocational education system to accommodate practical research.

The current cabinet is already laying the groundwork for this, says the Minister. “We have allocated a yearly budget of 100 million euros to practice-based research at universities of applied sciences. That’s an enormous amount when you consider that we practically started from zero.”

During the course of the conversation, Dijkgraaf repeatedly underlines what the cabinet has achieved and what is at stake in the elections. “This government has made huge investments in education and research. There’s really been a major course correction. We reinstated the basic student grant, which promotes equal opportunities in education, and our sector plans for science have allowed universities to create 1,200 permanent positions. There are also start-up and incentive grants that make it easier for young scientists to get a permanent contract and then access the resources they need to shape their own research.”

‘How can we accommodate all the potential we have in the Netherlands?’

Will all that work be undone after the elections if the wrong parties get their way? “The way I see it, these are all little seedlings that we’ve planted, and that are beginning to sprout. These really are long-term investments. In the end, there will be major benefits for the Netherlands in terms of innovation – finding smarter and better ways to meet the big societal challenges. My largest concern is that we don’t give these plans the chance to come to fruition.”

Small, medium, large
The Foresight Study is supposed to be neutral, but it presents three options. Doesn’t that format make the middle option seem the most sensible? Dijkgraaf smiles. “It’s true that ministers are often presented with three possible variants by their staff: small, medium and large. And then you’re usually inclined to choose medium. Small and large are often just there as a formality.”

But that’s not the case with the Foresight Study, he believes. “People will make some choices and highlight certain aspects based on their political beliefs. But the big question is: how can we accommodate all the potential we have in the Netherlands? For the major challenges we face as a society, we’re totally dependent on people who are trained to address them. That’s why I often talk about the equality of all forms of education, from vocational schools to research universities – because we need everyone. But if you take all those challenges into consideration… yes, you do end up choosing the medium variant.”

That’s what Dijkgraaf hopes, at least. It’s election season, which means that parties are mostly talking about all the things they would do if they were in power. “But no party is going to get an absolute majority”, Dijkgraaf predicts. “Ultimately, of course, the question is: how are we going to address these issues together? The art of politics is about give and take, and about trying to work out a compromise. The big win is finding a way to move forward.”

Those are the kinds of moments Dijkgraaf appreciates in politics: when a tortuous process results in a bill or spending decision. “Take those big investments in scientific research: we actually made those happen. The same goes for reinstituting the basic student grant: that law was published in the Government Gazette. It’s all very frustrating and complicated, but there comes a point where you can actually make a difference.”

HOP, Bas Belleman
Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

Future exploration: three choices, with less and more freedom

  1. Future ministers could emphasise the labour market and economy. Students will then have less freedom to study what they want, as more students should choose engineering, healthcare and education. There is less room for unfettered scientific research in this perspective.
  2. A second perspective looks mainly at societal challenges. This therefore not only involves the economy and labour market, but also, for instance, climate change, food security and equal opportunities. For instance, programmes with a numerus fixus should pay more attention to ‘transparent and valid selection’ of students.
  3. The third perspective puts individual talents at the centre. Students are given a lot of freedom and the supply of study programmes follows demand. More money is allocated to untied research.


Find the whole report here (in Dutch).

HOP Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau

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