The Netherlands is mulling bringing in widespread student selection, breaking a cultural “taboo” and forcing universities to choose more distinct missions, amid fears that they have grown too similar.
If enacted, the controversial changes to admissions would mirror reforms introduced last year in France, where the government has given universities greater power to select their students in order to reduce failure rates.
The proposals have been put forward by the Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI), which advises the Dutch government and parliament, and have gained widespread media attention in the Netherlands, with some newspapers reporting on concerns that more selection could make higher education less accessible.
Selection is “apparently a taboo” in the Netherlands, explained Uri Rosenthal, the chairman of the AWTI, who is a political scientist and former foreign minister for the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. It runs against a “very deep cultural idea” that “if you have the right [high school] diploma, you should be able to study where you like”, he said.
Dutch universities are already allowed to select for master’s and for some smaller, intensive bachelor’s programmes, he explained. But the AWTI report wants to broaden selection across all bachelor’s courses.
Increased selection can be used to “manage” student numbers in subjects for which the labour market has little demand, making higher education more “efficient”, says Shaking Up the System: Towards a Future-proof Higher Education and Research System.
More freedom to select students would be “very welcome”, a spokesman for the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) said, because “it increases the autonomy of universities and can help to improve study success”.
“However, some universities do not want to select students, and this is also fine; the AWTI does not propose a duty to select,” he explained.
Dutch universities have also become too similar, the report warns.
“What has happened over the past 10 to 15 years is that all the universities have broadened,” explained Sjoukje Heimovaara, a member of the AWTI and chief executive of Royal Van Zanten, a horticultural firm.
Even technical universities had begun offering courses such as business and psychology because funding was based on the proportion of students institutions enrol, forcing them to compete against each other for numbers, she said.
Some courses were now being offered at 10 campuses when five was sufficient, while research subject specialisation at universities had weakened, she warned.
Dutch universities do already make institutional plans, but these are often “vague” and lacking in hard targets, she said.
Instead, the AWTI wants universities to be assessed to see whether they are living up to new, more specialised missions, with between 5 per cent and 30 per cent of their funding on the line if they fail.
They need to set out a “clear profile” in “binding” institutional plans, it recommends, with universities forced to choose whether they want to pursue pure research, dissemination or teaching, according to the report.
Universities object to more regulation, the VSNU spokesman said, arguing that they are already heavily regulated.
The AWTI’s recommendations have now been passed to the minister of education, culture and science, Ingrid van Engelshoven. Whether they are accepted now depends on the reaction of the minister and parliament, said Dr Rosenthal.
Dutch to rein in scramble for research grants in sector shake-up
‘Competition in scientific research has gone too far,’ says government-appointed committee proposing wide-ranging reform package
The Netherlands is set to shake up its university funding system to reduce competition between academics for research grants, cutting the time spent on largely unsuccessful funding applications.
Changes proposed in a major review of the sector mark a turn away from a competitive philosophy, reflecting growing Dutch concerns that the costs of pitting academics against each other in pursuit of funding have begun to outweigh the benefits.
Some €100 million (£88 million) a year should be transferred away from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, which distributes competitive grants, and instead go directly to universities, according to a committee tasked by the Dutch government to come up with reforms.
In some fields, success rates have dropped as low as 10 to 15 per cent, he said. With such “insanely low” win percentages, “it becomes very arbitrary who gets or doesn’t get a research grant”, Dr Bol said.
Excessive workload and stress have emerged as key concerns in Dutch academia: tens of thousands of lecturers and teachers demonstrated in The Hague in March to demand better pay and working conditions. But whether this latest suggestion relieves pressure on academics depends on how universities spend the extra money, Dr Bol cautioned.
The committee has also recommended shifting money towards science and technology students to accommodate labour market demands. There has been a surge of candidates wishing to study these fields, which has forced universities to introduce grade thresholds to cope, the committee notes as evidence of the need for more resources.
Such a shift could mean big budget increases for some of the country’s universities of technology, including Delft (8 per cent) and Eindhoven (8 per cent), according to calculations by Carel Stolker, the rector of Leiden University.
But it would also mean reductions for less technically focused institutions such as the Dutch Open University and Maastricht University. If money is shifted to science and technology, this will “necessitate substantial and damaging budget cuts for the humanities, social sciences and medical sciences”, warned Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands.
“These disciplines, which are of major importance to society, are already besieged by excessive workload and other problems,” he said.
The committee also wants to end the link between university funding and enrolment numbers, arguing that this creates “perverse” incentives for excessive growth. The idea is also to give universities more stable funding to improve long-term planning.
These proposed changes are so far only recommendations. The government is set to respond to them in June. A spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science said that the minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, had described the suggestions as “very interesting” and had praised the committee chair, Martin van Rijn, a former Labour party politician, as having done a “very good job”.
Netherlands plans overhaul of academic careers in move away from metrics
Country will also consider creating teaching-focused professorships to stop academics being overloaded by responsibilities
The Netherlands will radically shake up how academics are assessed and promoted, including a shift away from relying on citations and journal impact factors.
Dutch universities also want to make it easier for academics to become professors on the basis of their teaching record, in a shift that will be closely watched by policymakers and unions across Europe.
The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), and bodies for university medical centres and health research said that they would organise a raft of activities in 2019 designed to find a “new approach” to “recognising and rewarding academics”.
According to Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University and one of the leaders of the review, one of the aims is to scale back the use of citation metrics and controversial journal impact factors, an average measure of the citations papers in a particular journal receive.
These metrics are currently “dominant” factors in university promotion decisions, and are used by the NWO when making grant decisions, she said.
Their use would be scaled back, and Professor Letschert said she hopes that instead there would be an expectation that funders and university heads of department would read applicants’ work, rather than rely on metrics.
Another plank of next year’s review is to create “differentiation of career pathways”, meaning that universities and university medical centres should give academics “a choice for specific focus areas –teaching, research, knowledge transfer and/or leadership”, according to a VSNU statement.
Workload for academics has ballooned as they are expected to fulfil all these roles, Professor Letschert said, at a time of surging student numbers. “When does it end? How can we be excellent in all these tasks?” she asked.
Maastricht and Utrecht universities have already brought in professorial positions where promotion is tilted towards teaching talent, she said, but this could now be rolled out across the country.
These positions would not be explicitly labelled “teaching professors” – “it should not become a B-track”, Professor Letschert said – and would still require the professors to conduct research, she explained. But the pressure to win grants would be relaxed, she added. One idea is to require these professors to have master’s degrees in educational science.
According to Rinze Benedictus, a policy adviser at University Medical Centre Utrecht, the Dutch rethink was spurred by a realisation that, although the Netherlands performs very well when it comes to research metrics, the “unintended consequences” of this system have gone too far.
Mr Benedictus previously warned that researchers in university medical centres were steering clear of publications that would benefit medicine because they were unlikely to rack up many citations. There was a “mismatch” between how scholars were assessed and the social relevance of their work, he said.
The Dutch reforms aim to boost the impact of research on society, and the NWO “will look for ways to increase the weight of research quality and anticipated impact in its evaluation of researchers and proposals”.
“Impact” has proved controversial in the UK, where the real-world effect of scholarship now determines a substantial chunk of university funding. How to measure impact is “a hot issue here as well”, Mr Benedictus said.
There is no agreement so far on how to measure impact, he said, although one idea put forward by the Dutch Royal Academy of Sciences was to judge researchers on whether they had followed the right dissemination processes, rather than whether or not impact had actually occurred.
“We can’t predict impact, but we can ask researchers to maximise the chances of it having impact,” Mr Benedictus said.