Photo: Martijn Beekman / D66

Minister of Education Robbert Dijkgraaf: 'There are forces larger than yourself'

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"I have lived in the science world, but now I get to have a helicopter view", says the physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education of the Netherlands. A conversation about facts, politics, education, science, the binding study advice and the reduction of the tuition fee increase.

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It is quite unusual for a world-renowned physicist to go into politics. You went from mathematical models that describe the most minute particles to the messy reality of The Hague...
“I have lived in the science world, but now I get to have a helicopter view. Now, I deal with many more parties, such as my colleagues in the cabinet, in other ministries and the members of parliament.”

You like to emphasize the importance of ‘facts’. Isn’t it a pity that facts sometimes play such a marginal role in politics?
“When I had just arrived here, I would often hear the expression ‘then it will be politics’. I had to get used to that. What it means is that you can take all kinds of rational steps and make all kinds of preparations, but at some point, you're going to get to a crossroads: in what direction do you want to go? And that is a political decision. But that happens in our private lives as well: we don’t always make our decisions based on facts, we make our own considerations.”

You also have to engage in dialogue and compromise.
“Sometimes politics seems slow and sluggish, while time goes fast. For example, we talked about the new basic grant for students, which we wanted to introduce in September 2023. Then we suddenly realised that, in order to accomplish, we had to hurry up".

How does a scientist handle political decision-making?
“Just like in scientific research, I always try to take a moment to start with a blank whiteboard. We try to build our results from the beginning. Afterwards, we can move onto memorandums and decisions.”

But take the compensation for the students under the current loan system, for example. First, a billion euros were earmarked for this purpose, and only afterwards did politicians start looking at what students actually need.
“You can’t always start from scratch, that is correct. The negotiations about the coalition agreement lasted nearly a year, so I can’t change much about that. But that is no different from scientific research. Nature gives a scientist certain facts: sometimes I hoped to identify a particle that turned out not to exist. There are forces larger than yourself.”

So we should just accept these forces and carry on?
“Yes, I guess that summarises it well.”

You have just defined a new course for higher education and research in the Netherlands, and you have distributed billions of euros. How do you go about deciding what’s appropriate?
“For that policy, we also had a specific budget available, which was about a billion euros a year. There were all kinds of reports and wishes. Compared to the compensation for students under the loan system, there are many more factors. So then you start meeting with people and gathering ideas. I always say that, as a minister, you are in the least comfortable position as you experience all forces and counterforces, and that is how it should be.”

What stands out the most is the budget of 300 million euros of working capital for researchers a year, half of it so that university lecturers get a permanent position.
“It is a stimulus for universities to offer permanent positions to young teachers (most of them between 30 and 40 years old). We are looking to provide some peace of mind and tranquillity for teachers that have little to no research time. It also allows us to alleviate the workload.”

But going from one temporary contract to another is mostly a postdoc problem, isn't it?
“Those postdocs would like to have a permanent position, and that is possible if they become university lecturers. So, we need more of them.”

Isn’t it better to ‘demand’ permanent positions rather than ‘encourage’ universities to create them?
He smiles. “We will also ensure more permanent positions through the sector plans.”

Speaking of the sector plans, you have set aside 200 million euros per year for these plans, various disciplines. Universities will make agreements about education and research related to the humanities or natural science fields, for instance, to prevent overlap and foster complementary work. How will these sector plans make for more permanent contracts?
“We will come to administrative agreements with the universities and monitor everything meticulously. The idea is to involve the groups that have empathised with the necessity of permanent contracts.”

But there will be no targets?
“We will convey our wishes explicitly. There won’t be any explicit numbers in the agreements, but we will ask a commission to keep oversight of things.”

You have recently stated that universities and universities of applied sciences should work as though they were a single institution. What did you mean by that?
“We have come a long way already in this country. The Netherlands is surprisingly good at collaboration. We tend to involve colleagues in our work very easily. In the USA, things are quite different: I’ve seen institutes located mere kilometres from each other start competing on the same topic. Thanks to our collaborations, we can handle foreign competition well. There is no scientific area that we can’t keep up with. But not everyone can do everything. You don’t have to juggle it all, just make some agreements.”

Can you give an example of study programs or departments that are overrepresented?
“No, I prefer not to. But I have seen for myself how sector plans in Physics and Chemistry have come in handy. They give universities the freedom to further develop themselves in a given area, say, Organic Chemistry while leaving another topic to a different university.”

Universities have been attracting too many students, while the universities of applied sciences have to deal with regional shrinkages. Wouldn't it be possible for universities of applied science to provide education in the areas that are shrinking? 
“I am going to start exploring this topic after the summer. What is the role of each type of education? Universities of applied sciences play an important role, due to their close connection to the job market and the in-depth knowledge offered by the study programmes.”

Is the establishment of a new university in a shrinking area a possibility? Universities of applied sciences have been turned into universities in the past.
“That is a good question, and all queries must be able to be asked. Universities of applied sciences now get 100 million euros annually to conduct practice-oriented research. The plan is to develop the research produced by the universities of applied science even further, in addition to making their education more innovative. That is why we have established the professional doctorate (the university of applied science-variant of a PhD degree; Ed).

What other possibilities are you planning to explore after the summer?
“There are a lot of degrees of separation in secondary vocational training and higher education. Perhaps we will be able to remove some and take it from the individual paths of the students? That is what I want to examine. Either way, I think we should look at secondary vocational training, universities of applied science and universities as a kind of fan, instead of establishing a hierarchy. Personally, I went from a research university to a university of applied science when I decided to work at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy. That was not a step down: it was a step to the side.”

Will you start this exploration with an empty whiteboard too?
“Yes, it’s good to start fresh. What should the leading principles be? There are all kinds of things on our wish list that we didn’t know existed when this ‘house’ was built, such as valorisation, knowledge security, social safety, the flexibilisation of education… The good thing is that teachers often look beyond borders. They are busy thinking about the future while the existing structures lag behind. The renewal should arise from the bottom and politics must give it room to thrive.”

You say that we should not establish a hierarchy, but, in general, someone with a diploma from a research university tends to earn a higher salary than someone that graduated from a university of applied sciences. Surely it is not odd for people to think that a hierarchy exists?
“Reality is always stubborn. It's hard to predict what salary you will earn. In the technology sector, wages tend to be high for all educational levels. Besides, income is not the only dimension we should be looking at. Many students say they would like to make a significant contribution to society someday.”

That is true, but many of them also say that they would like to be able to afford a house in the future.
“In my conversations with students, I have never had someone ask me: 'what programme will earn me the highest income?' Of course students want to have a house and a job that offers them some perspective. Their worries are legitimate. I often stress that in the ministerial council: let’s view policy through the eyes of young people. The reintroduction of the basic student grant will help them, but we must keep paying attention to their needs.”

Is it true that you would like to do something against a sudden tuition increase of over 200 euros?
“I will examine how I can cushion the tuition increase. I agree it is a big increase.”

Students also complain about stress and the pressure to perform. Your predecessor wanted to restrict the binding study advice for that reason. What will you do?
“We will see whether we can move the binding study advice to the second year so that students get more time. That seems prudent to me. I was shocked when students told me about the pressure to perform, the mental health problems, the stress and the feelings of insecurity they experience. We have to be careful: as a society, we cannot put unlimited amounts of pressure on our students.”

Where do you think that pressure comes from?
“We have an education system that is unique in the world: it is accessible and of high quality. I used to think: why doesn’t the whole world do it as we do? But there is too much pressure: teachers who have no time left for research and students that have to finish their degrees as quickly as possible. Part of it comes from peer pressure: society puts pressure on students, and then that gets to their heads and they end up making themselves go insane about it. It’s my job to say: 'can we ease things up a little?' My plans also take students’ mental health into account. After all, that has to be prioritised more.”

Even so, only a fraction of the funds you distributed last week were allocated to this purpose.
“Policy conversations are often ‘material’. It’s about funds, buildings, and machines. But the immaterial part matters too: what is the atmosphere like? What is the culture like? To what extent do we care about each other?”

Students got more say in faculty and university councils when they lost the basic student grant. Now the grant is making a comeback. Will the participation of students in such councils be reduced?
“I would like to emphasise that the means made available thanks to the student loan system are here to stay. Moreover, we now have an additional billion euros for the teachers. We think codetermination is important, so we still have to examine that.”

Why is it so difficult to set a standard — for example, to provide more support to the councils?
“There are also institutes that do more than the government demands and we do not wish to inhibit them.”

Dutch ministers tend to ‘call for’ things or ‘encourage’ things rather than enforcing them.
“The institutions are autonomous and these things should arise from the bottom. However, in my policy, I definitely take responsibility at the national level. Take knowledge security, for instance: it would be unwise to have every department reinvent the wheel. We should some sort of dike monitoring at the national level.”

You have recently withdrawn the law that would allow universities to have more control over the influx of foreign students.
“The same principle applies. I can fill the toolbox and each farmer can take care of their little piece of the dike, but that won’t ensure the monitoring of the entire dike. We must have a national policy on internationalisation: what do we all want? That vision is lacking. By the way, I have been discussing short-term solutions with the universities.”

You are the minister for the party D66. How is your party visible in your policies?
“Centralising the development of the individual is an important value for D66. Personal freedom is very important to me. Society asks all manner of things, but young people know very well what they want. We can encourage them to go in a certain direction, but they make that decision themselves. Equality of opportunity is part of that. We have a beautiful education system, but many people fall by the wayside and never start. We have to do something about that. It’s not enough to say that the door is open to everyone. For some, getting there is way harder.”

What about research?
“I've recently held my first ministerial speech about science. Knowledge is of vital importance for the Netherlands, but at the same time, it is under pressure. We have to stand up for facts and for the researchers that give us those facts. You can’t say 'science is just an opinion, I have an alternative report here, so it’s a draw'. We have to stand up for science.”

Author: Bas Belleman, from the news agency HOP

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