Edition 30 September 2018, by Marla Thomson
Promises made by the government to Dutch students in 2015, when it abolished the student scholarship grant and introduced a loan system, have yet to be realized. The excess money raised by abolishing the grant would be reinvested in universities and institutions of higher education in order to increase the quality of education. Furthermore, the current Rutte III Cabinet introduced a bill to the House of Representatives to increase the interest rate on the loan – an effort led by Minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven – which has been received with great criticism.
The origins of the loan system for students date back the creation of the second Rutte government in 2012. When Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD party and the PvdA negotiated their coalition, it was agreed that, in return for the PvdA’s support for stricter treatment of illegal immigrants, the VVD would support the abolition of the student scholarship grant in favor of a social loan system. Neither party was enthusiastic about supporting the other party’s request, but with the fragile state of Dutch politics in 2012, along with the emergence of radical right-wing political parties at the time, a unified coalition government was the priority.
The law was conceived in 2012, drawn up in 2013 and passed in both the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer) and the Senate (Eerste Kamer) in 2014, to begin the following academic year, 2015. This educational reform came with three solid promises: one, there would be pre-investments from learning institutions to benefit students entering higher education before the government would begin disbursing funds in 2018; two, the money the government would save would be reinvested back into learning institutions to help increase the quality of education for all; and three, the new “social loan system” would decrease the inequality gap by making higher education more financially accessible to students from poorer backgrounds. Since then, none of these promises have been kept – rather, the repayment conditions have been tightened, making education more expensive and burdening students with debt once they graduate. The impact of these broken promises, and, as some argue, the system itself, on current, future and newly graduated students are beginning to ripple into society as a whole, as having any kind of debt makes obtaining a mortgage extremely difficult.
From the start of the 2015 academic year, there were problems with the promises from the Dutch cabinet: several pre-investment projects were put on hold before they could even be reviewed; then discussions started about what actually constitutes a “pre-investment project”. The discussions never gained any footing and the first promise was broken, leaving students starting their course in 2015 with debt from day one of their studies, no increase in the quality of education and the expectation that they would have to start repaying their loans as soon as they graduated. Not only were pre-investment promises never realized, the promise of reinvestment into higher education have not come to fruition either. At minimum, the reinvestment proposal promised to lower the teacher-to-student ratio, while increasing the number of individual contact hours. This has not happened, and with the lack of investment in learning institutions, universities and colleges around the Netherlands have had to turn away students. The universities of Delft and Eindhoven were even forced to close popular courses for new students.
Another promise was that abolishing the student scholarship grant and moving to a social loan system would make higher education more financially accessible to poorer students. Not only did the cabinet not offer any solid proof that the accessibility of higher education would increase, but the exact opposite appears to be happening. The most vulnerable people consider school to be too expensive and opt to not continue or even start higher education. Additionally, the interest rate at which all students must repay their loans is set in to increase under the current cabinet. As the National Union of Students (LSVb) recently tweeted: instead of the promised investments, the interest on student loans has increased. While the current cabinet and education minister inherited an ill-planned and vaguely defined policy, it is up to them to correct it. Raising interest rates on student loans may seem to be an obvious solution, which on paper would create an increase in funds to re-invest, but burdening students with the responsibility of picking up the pieces of an irresponsible decision is not the answer. Making education more attractive, more affordable and less burdensome for students is the direction the government should take, as is argued by student interest groups across The Netherlands.