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University Challenged - Wind of Change in the Netherlands

University Challenged - Wind of Change in the Netherlands
 Hans de Wit
Distinguished Fellow, Center for International Higher Education

The French higher education and research (HER) system has been facing many challenges for several years: demographic influx, lack of autonomy of institutions, underfunding, lack of attractiveness... The Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated these structural difficulties. But is the French case unique? To answer the question, Institut Montaigne has launched a blogpost series to shed light on the challenges and opportunities faced by other HER systems worldwide. For the third article of our series, we dive into the Netherland's HER system and what to learn from it.

The Netherlands is considered to have one of the best systems of higher education in the world. Its thirteen research universities are in the top 250 of the Times Higher Education 2021 Ranking and ten of them are also in the top 250 of the ARWU and QS rankings. In the higher education systems rankings of U21 and QS, the country is positioned in the top 10. This has been quite consistent over the past 20 years, even with increasing competition from Asian universities. Both its research and teaching are positively assessed for their quality, as is its international dimension. The number of international students has increased substantially over the past decades as a result of the use of English as language of instruction, increased international recruitment efforts and a reputation for high quality teaching. Also, the number of international staff, including PhD students - who are, with some exceptions, considered as staff - is relatively high, as is the involvement in EU research funds and the European University Initiative networks. So the picture looks, at the surface, pretty bright. There are, however, increasing concerns about the workload and pressure of academic staff, the pressure of English and international students on the quality of teaching and support services, as well as about sustainability of quality by increasing student numbers and lack of funding.

A factor explaining the growth predictions in both sectors is the pandemic, which makes the job perspectives of school leavers and bachelor graduates less positive and will result in more students choosing advanced degrees.

An important feature of the Dutch higher education is its binary system, consisting of 13 research universities (bachelor, master and PhD programs) and 36 universities of applied sciences (mostly bachelor programs, some professional master programs). What is rather unique is that there are more students in the universities of applied sciences than in the research universities: 488,000 compared to 329,000 in 2020. Where it was assumed that the numbers for both sectors would decline, the opposite has happened. Even for the coming years, it is now assumed that the numbers will go up to 495,000 and 395,000 in 2026, indicating that the growth will be bigger for the research universities. This is to a large extent to be explained by the growth in master students at the research universities from 119,000 in 2020 to 157,000 in 2026. 

A factor explaining the growth predictions in both sectors is the pandemic, which makes the job perspectives of school leavers and bachelor graduates less positive and will result in more students choosing advanced degrees. It is also anticipated that the number of international students. In 2019, there were a total of 86,000 students from around 170 countries, or 11.5% of the total student population. Most of these students come from within the EU/EEA region, with 27% coming from outside that region, and most of them (2/3) go to the research universities, both bachelor, master and PhD. Although the pandemic has put these numbers on hold, it is assumed that they will increase to 103,000 in 2026.

Extreme workload

This growth in student numbers puts extra pressure on the sector and the staff, who already before the pandemic were expressing concerns about extreme workload, increasing dependence on non-tenured short contracts, high administrative burdens and research funding and output pressure. Over the past year and a half, we have seen these pressures grow due to the transfer to digitalized methods and growing concerns over the well-being of students and staff. 

These concerns have resulted in debates and actions focused around some key themes, particularly for the research universities: the need for a different approach and policy around competition for research funding, less emphasis on research output as basis for staff performance and evaluation, more career opportunities for young scholars and PhD graduates, less focus on teaching in English and recruitment of international students, and more funding for the system. The sector needs an extra one billion euros as both the minister and a study by PwC have stated, in order to reduce work pressure of staff and avoid decrease in quality. 

The sector needs an extra one billion euros as both the minister and a study by PwC have stated, in order to reduce work pressure of staff and avoid decrease in quality. 

Teaching and research, a split or a duet?

In 2018, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) showed, in a report titled Split or Duet?, how the interwoven nature of teaching and research is under pressure. Firstly because of the keen competition in the research field - more than half of university research is financed from funds outside the university. Competition for funding is intense and time-consuming. Secondly, research enjoys higher status than teaching. The Academy advocates greater career differentiation, as well as indicators for measuring teaching performance and greater attention to the performance of research groups, rather than individual researchers. Thirdly, there is an increasing number of students. This leads to an increase in the proportion of academic staff with only teaching duties. Finally, there is also a high increase in the workload of the academic staff which in turn requires more funding. 

Over the past three years these topics have become more central in the debate on the future of teaching and research. Open Access and Open Science, a change in funding mechanisms and assessments of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), less emphasis on research in performance and promotion processes, and more pressure on extra funding for teaching and research are debated intensively. This will influence the formation of the new coalition government after the elections of March 2021. There appears to be a broad understanding about the importance of making transformational changes in the relationship between teaching and research, of addressing societal needs and of additional funding. Whether this will result in real commitment and action by the new government is still uncertain, as recovery from the pandemic will impact on how much space and willingness there is for enhancement of higher education and research.



Copyright: JOHN THYS / AFP

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