17 February 2017 • HOP, by Bas Belleman
Political leaders on education: free beer for everyone?
Which is preferable, a basic grant or lower tuition fees? Four political leaders duelled it out yesterday in the Auditorium of Delft University of Technology in front of an audience of students. The three biggest parties and SP (Socialist Party) did not attend.
A few hundred students shuffled past stern-looking security guards as they made their way into the Auditorium. They were not allowed to take a coat or bag with them. The room was said to be filled to the rafters, though the Auditorium at Delft University of Technology can easily accommodate such large numbers. A few dozen students who had registered were no-shows, leaving their blue folding chairs unoccupied.
Why were students so interested in hearing the debate? ‘I saw on Facebook that lots of people were going to attend,’ said a Life Science & Technology student. She thought it sounded like an interesting debate. She wasn’t sure yet how she was going to vote and, at this point, had only ruled out a few parties she ‘totally disagrees with’.
An Industrial Engineering & Management student was mostly interested in seeing the D66 and GroenLinks political leaders in action. He was still deciding between the two, but wanted to add, ‘I very much dislike Mark Rutte.’
That’s a good thing because Rutte was not attending the debate in Delft. Not only CDA and PVV, but also SP did not attend. The four political leaders entered the room in order of the number of Facebook likes received: First Gert-Jan Segers (ChristenUnie), followed by Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA), Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) and, finally, Alexander Pechtold (D66).
All four have their own plans and promises. ChristenUnie wants to re-introduce the basic grant in order to close ‘gaps’ in society, while GroenLinks wants to cut tuition fees in half, D66 wants to extend the validity of the student public transport pass to 7 days a week and PvdA wants to help the country move forward now that the economy is improving.
Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA) in particular was sceptical about the wild plans of the other parties. D66’s plan for public transport sounds great, but is extremely expensive, he claimed. You might as well just promise free beer to everyone. ‘Make decisions that contribute directly to the accessibility and quality of education and say no to the rest.’
Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) also wanted to know which problem exactly D66 is solving by expanding the validity of the student public transport pass. Alexander Pechtold (D66) in turn saw little benefit to cutting tuition fees in half, as GroenLinks suggested, since this would cost 700 million euros.
Gert-Jan Segers from ChristenUnie talked repeatedly about the basic grant. He referred to the other parties’ plans to make life cheaper for students as a ‘token gesture’. And if the basic grant is not an option, at least do something to benefit young people who start on a lower educational level and then work their way up and the disabled.
The four parties do, however, see eye to eye on these issues. They promise billions of euros for education and warn that the right-wing parties have little interest in this. The political leaders implied that VVD and CDA are less interested in education or they would have joined today’s debate.
During the last part of the debate, the political leaders threw around numbers for research and innovation. Pechtold wants to add a billion, especially for fundamental research. He even wants to go to Mars. ‘Why? Not just to go there, but because of how it benefits us if we try. The knowledge such research yields could be of immense value. Penicillin was also just an incidental discovery.’
Asscher wants to spend two hundred million on this. ‘That’s quite a sum, but not a billion.’ He would prefer an investment bank with an annual investment of 2.5 billion euros. This makes it possible to stimulate high-risk, innovative research to which the business community also contributes. And it would also create jobs. ‘We have to make choices.’
Klaver wants to earmark half a billion for research and innovation, he says, in particular for fundamental research. He wants to provide more direct funding to universities and not distribute it via The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). ‘It’s not necessary to ask how every study will benefit our economy. That’s not something you know at the start of a study. Knowledge has intrinsic value and there need to be more opportunities to deliberately seek out knowledge.’
Segers would also like to spend more money on research and innovation, but in collaboration with the business community. He mentions sustainable energy as an example. He hopes to achieve the ‘energy transition’ within one generation. ‘To achieve this, we need science, we need the government and we need the business community. Together we can make it happen.’
At the end of the debate, the political leaders appealed to the young people to vote on 15 March. They made reference to Trump and Brexit. The election is a crucial one and young people can make the difference. As Pechtold put it, ‘Make sure you don’t wake up on the morning of 16 March and think “I should’ve voted”.’
The students in attendance were none the wiser after the debate. ‘They’re so similar to each other,’ said an Industrial Engineering & Management student. ‘But it was interesting to hear what they had to say.’ Another commented, ‘As far as I’m concerned, they could’ve covered a broader range of topics, not just education and research.’
Asscher agrees and recommended to the students at the end of the debate that they should not base their vote solely on what the parties plan to do with higher education. After all, these four parties more or less agree on higher education.