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New government hits students hard in budget cuts

The Netherlands’ new coalition cabinet has introduced budget cuts that hit students hard. From September 2014 undergraduate scholarships will be turned into loans for new students. The very popular free public transport pass will be scrapped in 2015. Students are outraged.

The new measures are part of a €16 billion (US$20.6 billion) set of cuts introduced by the new coalition, which consists of the liberal-party VVD and Labour-party PvdA.

Students complained that they are being hit disproportionally hard by the cuts. “There are 600,000 students in The Netherlands and they face €1 billion of budget cuts,” said Jan van ‘t Westende, chair of umbrella student organisation the National Chamber of Associations, or LKvV.

The Higher Education Board, which represents universities of applied sciences, calculated that there would be 15,000 fewer students because of the cuts.

Dutch students were surprised by the budget decisions. It was expected that the bachelor degree scholarships would be turned into loans, but it was also expected that this cut would be combined with an investment in higher education.

“It is unacceptable that this is not the case”, said Kai Heijneman, chair of the National Union of Students, or LSVb. Only €150 million from the €1 billion of cuts will be invested in higher education for fundamental research.

Currently bachelor students who live on their own receive €246 monthly as a scholarship. From 2014 new undergraduate students will have to loan money from the government. This will set them back about €3,000 a year. Scholarships will still be available for poor students.

Student organisations are worried that many students will have large debts after graduating. At the moment the average debt of graduates is about €15,000.

The details of the government loan scheme have yet to be released. Loans will also be provided to masters students – the scrapping of masters scholarships was part of a set of cuts made by the previous coalition government and will be introduced next year.

The new cabinet also decided to cancel the popular ov-jaarkaart – free public transport pass for students – from 2015.

“The ability to travel for free wherever one wishes is highly valued among students. No one had expected this cut”, said Thijs van Reekum, chair of the umbrella student organiation ISO.

“We are worried that in the near future students will not study at the university of their choice, but at the institution that is closest by. It will be very expensive to visit one’s parents and friends if they live on the other side of the country.”

Van Reekum stressed that the cancellation of the card could prove very expensive to students and would limit opportunities to study at more than one university because of the transport cost.

Students will receive a discount card, but it is not yet clear the level of discount they will get.

The new government has stressed that The Netherlands must work towards excellent education. “We want to be in the top five of the world,” it stated.

“With these cuts that is never going to happen”, said the LKvV’s Jan van ‘t Westende. “There is no investment in education and it is made less attractive to pursue a degree.”

All measures still have to go through the Dutch parliament, and students hope that changes to the cuts that affect them will be made there. They are not planning protests yet – but said that would be an option if changes are not made.
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