‘There is no perfect system’

Education minister Bussemaker insists that students didn’t lose the study grant system for nothing. She plans to pull out all the stops to ensure that newly available funding will be well spent. ‘I have to be able to face the students.’

Jet Bussemaker

Jet Bussemaker (1961), a member of the Dutch Labour Party, has been the minister of Education, Culture and Science in the Rutte II cabinet since 2012. She studied politicology at the University of Amsterdam and went on to achieve her PhD there. After receiving her doctoral degree, she worked as an instructor and researcher at UvA and the Free University, as well as in a governmental capacity. In 2011 and 2012, she served as the dean of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

Bussemaker was originally a member of the Green Left party but she eventually switched to the PvdA party and became a member of the Dutch House of Representatives in 1998. Between 2007 and 2010, she was the State Secretary of Health, Welfare and Sport in the cabinet of prime minister Balkenende.

Thousands of first year students are beginning their studies, many of whom are living away from home for the first time. What would minister Jet Bussemaker most like to say to them? ‘I have some wise words about taking out loans for your studies and how you have to pay it all back’, she says, laughing. ‘But I would like to say first of all: take full advantage of the opportunity that you have. Check out the student groups, study groups, sports clubs. Your years at university are a formative period.’

In other words, being a student is not only about passing your classes. She attended university in Amsterdam herself, where she studied politicology. She did scientific research, entered politics and, years later, became the president of the board of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. ‘I played piano and enrolled in all kinds of classes’, she recalls. ‘I even participated in a theatre performance once. I just thought it was fun to do it.’

And what are those wise words about using loans to pay for you studies?

‘Go about it conscientiously and deliberately. A loan and a supplemental grant are meant to be used to finance your studies, not to go on a nice vacation. Students can also work part time. Working in a restaurant or café can be nice, but you can also find a job that has some connection to your studies. Just don’t forget to request financial aid, because that is how you get your public transportation card.’

Studying without a grant

It’s the minister’s most important political achievement: new bachelor and master students no longer receive a study grant. Opponents warned that fewer students would choose to study as a result, but so far, it seems that there are just as many first year students as in years past. Bussemaker says, ‘I always said: there may be a small dip in the total number of enrolments, but that will also eventually repair itself. I am pleased that there doesn’t appear to have been much of a dip at all, though.’

‘I am too autonomous to change everything’

Is that a jab at your critics?

‘Everyone has to draw their own conclusions, but I do feel validated. We didn’t ask anything unreasonable of the students. New students were probably disappointed, and I understand that. But this is a huge step: now, we can invest up to one billion additional euros into higher education.’

Applied science universities and research institutions are putting those numbers into perspective and saying that it’s likely to be much less.

‘The money that will be made available as a result of the implementation of the study advance could be as much as one billion euros. That’s just true. I can understand that universities would like even more money and that is why there is discussion about how much it will be. But it is what it is. As for how the money will be spent, we can still make quality assurance agreements. I have to be able to face the students. I specifically want to avoid letting this money slip away.’

That figure of one billion euros includes things like two million euros in savings from the public transportation cards. Will that actually happen, though?

‘I am assuming so. There are some schools where you could fire a canon across campus after 4 p.m. because there isn’t anyone around at that hour. That is a shame, especially if you consider how expensive the buildings are. That’s why we are saying: think about better distribution. That will make the public transport cards cheaper and the money can be spent on higher education.’

Last year, you called for class schedules to be adjusted. That didn’t go over so well.

‘There have been some misunderstandings. I can’t dictate class times. But Ron Bormans, the president of the board of Hogeschool Rotterdam, immediately said, ‘You guys don’t actually think that you can tell us what to do with our rosters?’ I would say to him, ‘Take a moment to think about what that could mean and sit down with your colleagues in the region to consider how you can optimally use your buildings.’’

Has that relationship changed in the past year?

‘It varies. It’s easier to do at some schools than at others. I think that Zwolle is a good example: there, the educational institutions have gotten together with public transportation companies and the municipality. Academic programmes have implemented one day of distance learning, much to the satisfaction of students.’

Occupation in Amsterdam

Last year, Bussemaker won the battle of the study grant. But the dust had not yet settled when Amsterdam jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire with the weeks-long occupation of the Maagdenhuis. The activists got the attention of the media and all eyes – and cameras – were on Amsterdam.

‘Amsterdam is easily inflamed

What was your reaction to the occupation?

‘I tried to understand what it was that the activists wanted, but it wasn’t so easy to get a handle on that. I wanted to go to the Maagdenhuis myself, but only if that could be somewhat prepared and there wouldn’t be any pushing or pulling on the door. I didn’t end up going at all because there was always someone who was opposed to it or against the subjects that we wanted to discuss.’

‘I did recognize the underpinnings of the protest, though: instructors who don’t feel like they have any ownership of their programme and students who feel that too much emphasis in placed on quantitative results. But don’t forget, the protests didn’t resonate throughout much of the rest of the country. I asked the students at Radboud University if they saw themselves in the protests, and they said, ‘barely’. Only two German students had any criticism there.’

Was it an Amsterdam-only event?

‘Amsterdam is easily inflamed and the University of Amsterdam has a long history of student protests. Amsterdam is also special for journalists. I suggested that they go see what it’s like in Maastricht or Groningen, or to go to the Christian Applied Sciences School in Ede. That’s a completely different world. Their graduation ceremonies are held in a church. Everything there is very cleanly organised.’

You also spoke to your fellow members of the House of Representatives about how they only speak about universities when it’s about higher education.

‘Yes, I think that’s a bad thing. In the Senate, it’s even worse. There are many professors in the Randstad. I think we can’t forget what happens elsewhere in other cities and in higher vocational education.’

A new political year

Now that the loan system has been safely considered by both chambers of the government and peace has returned to the Maagdenhuis, a new political year can begin. Bussemaker has spoken with the House of Representatives about her strategic agenda for higher education and has defended a proposed law to improve the balance between co-determination and university board members.

Have the protests in Amsterdam influenced your plans?

‘I haven’t changed anything as a result of the protests. Most of it was already completed and I am too autonomous to change everything. But I do recognise some of the problems, so I felt validated in that sense as well.’

‘There simply isn’t a perfect system’

Such as?

‘The enormous number of temporary contracts among researchers, for example. That is truly excessive at certain points. We are trying to do something about that. Universities have to value education more highly and I want to connect the lectorate of the applied science schools more closely with education. Connecting education and research is quite unique – it’s much more separated in Germany, for example. That is something that we really have to hold on to.’

According to some critics, you didn’t listen to the calls for more democracy in your proposed laws regarding co-determination.

‘I read an angry letter from the Socialist Party. They want students to be able to choose the board members of universities. If you want to kill your institutions, go right ahead. These are complicated processes, especially at bigger institutions. Anyone who thinks that is a good idea only has to look abroad. There are universities in England where students have little to no say, yet they are very satisfied and vice versa. There simply isn’t a perfect system.’

A majority in the House of Representatives wants the curriculum committees to have more of a say in matters. They could be given the right to vote for the educational programme.

‘That motion was submitted after the proposed law had already been written. I’m not in the habit of denying motions. I would be happy to look into how we can further strengthen the curriculum committees. But I would warn that you won’t get there purely through changing the laws. You should see how many boards and committees can barely find enough students to participate! We have to think about the whole codetermination culture. I think David van Reybrouck’s idea for drawing lots is a good one: students are just summoned. That also prevents you from always ending up with the usual suspects in the committees over and over again. You just can’t achieve that strictly through formally voting.’

Still, students at some institutions have more say than others. Shouldn’t it just be made more equal across the board?

‘I worry about summing everything up in rules. What would the minimum requirements be? Would they have to be the same for a university in Amsterdam as they are at an applied sciences university in Zeeland? Beyond that, minimum requirements can very easily become maximum norms. It can just become what everybody does.’