22 January 2018 • Bas Belleman
‘Happy new year, preferably without Performance agreements’
At The Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences’ new year’s reception, Chairman Thom de Graaf, tried to get his party peer, Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven, on his side – do away with the tendency for control in higher education. But did he succeed?
How many students earn a diploma, how quickly do they study, how many lesson hours do they have, how well trained are the teachers? In 2012, universities of applied sciences and universities had to make firm performance agreements with the then VVD minister, Halbe Zijlstra. Six universities of applied sciences did not achieve their goals and were ‘fined’.
Thorn in the eye
This is a thorn in the eye of D66 senator, Thom de Graaf. In his new year’s speech, he criticised “market dominated control mechanisms”, with the government as a sort of major shareholder that is after value for money. “Nobody now would understand such a futile directive as the performance agreements of the then Minister Zijlstra, let alone accept them.”
He anticipated the views of the Minister up front. His speech was not intended to stop the Minister from introducing a new round of performance agreements, he said. “I have full confidence that you are not intending to go down this route and that you, students and institutions will start on a new path in which the dialogue and the space for the entire picture of the university of applied sciences are the milestones.”
Meeting half way
Ms Van Engelshoven took the floor and, yes, she came half way. She emphasised that she sees how hard universities of applied sciences work. “As a minister, this makes me confident, confident enough to trust them.” This must have been music to De Graaf’s ears, as greater trust means less control.
Nevertheless, the new Cabinet will work on ‘quality agreements’ in higher education. The big question is what these agreements will be. Higher education is lobbying to control these new agreements as far as possible and to wriggle out of the Ministry’s control.
Ms Van Engelshoven appears to be open to this. “I definitely do not want to turn this around,”she said yesterday. “I firmly believe in making one’s own agreements – between institutions, teaching staff, students and the professional field. And these agreements can easily vary among institutions.”
But she did not make any clear commitments. Even more so, she let slip that universities of applied sciences and universities will not have a free hand. “Of course we will look at the issues that we all embraced in the Common Strategic Agenda,” she stressed to the audience.
The Common Agenda was agreed by the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), The Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, and the ISO and LSVb, two student unions. It covers how education can be done better with the extra funding that the institutions receive now that the basic grant has been scrapped. It states all sorts of measurable requirements such as more teaching staff, more student psychologists, more talent courses, better study facilities and the further professionalisation of teaching staff. They may just become firm agreements.
Closing the gap
This is also true for the objectives given in the Ministry of Education’s Strategic Agenda which lists greater collaboration with education, higher study scores, more attention paid to senior secondary vocational education students and so on. How will Ms Van Engelshoven close the gap between control and letting go? She will not be satisfied with vague intentions. The university of applied sciences institutions in any case will have to answer the question, how has our university of applied sciences used the resources generated by the student loans to improve quality? “Clear answers to this question helps me do my work properly.”