THE NETHERLANDS: Call for significant reforms

Dutch higher education institutions need to diversify more and promote more ways for students to switch between vocational and academic courses, according to a major report on the future of higher education.

The Veerman report, Differentiation in Three Parts, was handed to the acting Minister of Higher Education Marja van Bijsterveldt last week. It has been welcomed at a time when the acting government plans to make cuts in public spending.

Its 10 recommendations include a call to secure "the future sustainability of higher education" and to ensure the Netherlands remains among the best-performing OECD economies.

The report was commissioned by former Education Minister Ronald Plasterk last year and was overseen by Professor Cees Veermanm, previously Minister of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality and former President of Wageningen University and Research Centre.

It focuses on areas where the Dutch higher education system needs improvement, including lifelong learning which the OECD has singled out as a problem area.

It says that the country's 'binary system' approach to higher education which includes 'early tracking' for 11 and 12 year-olds who select if they want to go to an academic university or a vocational one is not working as well as it could.

The report suggests steps should be taken to make it easier to transfer between the two types of institutions. The current drop-out rate for first-year students at both types of institution is 25% or higher and needs to be tackled, it adds.

Two of the report's 10 recommendations address how the binary system can be improved. In addition to existing plans to introduce an 'associate degree' at vocational universities to make transfer between the two types of institution easier, the report proposes that teaching credentials should be given more weight during recruitment of academics.

The report also recommends that teaching at universities of applied science be based on research. It says masters degrees taken at universities of applied sciences need to be given greater recognition by academics and that student loans and grants be made available to those aged over 30 to encourage lifelong learning.

It is critical of the current admissions system for the most popular subjects. Students who have completed their secondary education have the right to study at one of the Netherlands' 14 research universities or an applied university.

Those who want to study the most popular subjects enter into a lottery system. The report compares this with that employed by universities in California where students have to compete for university places by taking entrance examinations.

The report suggests that an entrance examination be introduced at Dutch universities as soon as possible. And it calls on universities to focus on areas where they are internationally excellent.

Groningen University, for instance, is acknowledged as a centre for excellence in energy research, healthy ageing, nanotechnology and social coherence.

The most radical recommendation in the report is to make the public financing of universities less dependent on the number of students going to university and to link it more to university output in terms of numbers of students and the quality of education offered.

The Veerman report has generally been welcomed by student and academic unions, particularly at a time when cuts in public spending are being made.

Jo Ritzen, a former Dutch minister and President of Maastricht University, said the report would "contribute to the massive support for higher education which was unleashed in recent years".

"Higher education should not expect loads of extra finance but will be saved from budget cuts (as apply to many other sectors as the government acts to cut the budget deficit)," Ritzen said.

"A transformation of the student grant system to a social student loan system is to be expected in an effort to generate extra cash. Research can definitely expect a boost in a manner which will also raise private research expenditures through public-private programmes."

He added that the focus on diversification of the higher education system was much needed but said it required more than the legal fix suggested by the report.

"Diversification of higher education requires a cultural revolution," he said.

The report was commissioned by Minister Plasterk of the Labour Party whose colleagues left the Balkenende government over a disagreement with Dutch involvement in Afghanistan on 20 February. The interim government is studying the report but observers do not expect any action before elections on 9 June.