Education minister Jo Ritzen has come back from political adversity with a reformist package, writes Mark Fuller. The self-styled "bungy jumper" in the Dutch tripartite coalition government, education minister Jo Ritzen, is a master at springing back from political adversity.
Charged with implementing one of the biggest reorganisations of the Dutch education system since the Second World War, the former economics professor seemed doomed a year ago, his credibility in tatters and student protest widespread.
Today, the 49-year-old Labour politician can afford a relaxed smile as he eases back into the white leather armchair in his office in The Hague. Ritzen has pacified the student revolt with a Pounds 200 million (0.5 billion guilders) programme to improve the quality of university education and restored his standing among education professionals by widening the debate on the government proposals to create a more market-driven, performance-based and decentralised system.
Ritzen's followers were shocked last year when he accepted a second term of office as education minister. He had initially rejected the offer, saying the government's plans to slash 10 per cent off the education budget were "unwise and unfeasible".
He was also openly opposed to the idea contained in the left-right coalition's policy accord that university education should be remodeled along UK and US lines.
Ritzen says he made the U-turn after the department's budget cuts were halved to 5 per cent and spread over a greater number of years. "I had already made a plan before I accepted the offer, and I believed I could achieve what I wanted within that financial framework," he said.
Nevertheless, his proposals for a 20 per cent increase in university tuition fees, a new grant and loan scheme and a shorter study duration for the Dutch bachelor's degree equivalent were seen by students and many institutions as a full-frontal attack rather than a tactical jab.
A major revolt was only avoided after student unions and universities were invited to join a steering committee, to devise ways of increasing the quality of higher education.
The committee will report its findings on July 1, while the ministry will consider recommendations from two other high-level committees before finalising its blueprint for change in September.
A number of points are already clear, however. There will be stricter selection process for university applicants, new shorter courses geared towards practical skills at other higher education institutions and a greater use of "computer supported education" to free up more teaching hours.
The system will also definitely be tougher on students who fail to reach the required academic standards. In future students will need to achieve significantly more than 25 per cent of their study points in their first year to have a student loan converted into a grant. Soft-option studies will be eradicated at secondary schools and pupils will have to pass both a central examination and a final examination set by their own school to qualify for university education.
Just over two weeks ago, Ritzen's plans for a new university grant and loan scheme, which would have reduced financing to a maximum four years from six, were blocked by a tiny majority in the upper chamber of parliament. Ritzen will now have to submit a new but similar Bill which will not be implemented until next year.
Nevertheless, the minister says he is committed to breaking the "vicious circle" in which university students average 5.7 years to complete a four-year course because they are eligible for a maximum six-year grant. Universities are equally unwilling to push for the completion of a course within four years when the majority of students want six years.
Higher quality education for less money is the primary goal of the reforms, while the cornerstone of Dutch education policy is equal opportunity and a greater responsibility to the labour market, Ritzen says. He concedes the goal of achieving more for less is a paradox, but "it is not a contra-diction".
"By cutting the average university study length we could raise the amount spent on each student by as much as 60 per cent by the end of this century, " he says.
The ministry wants a greater differentiation in study to reflect the diversity of the labour market and has pledged to give help to schools or individual teachers who perform well.
At the same time, the ministry plans to direct more funds to primary education. "Higher education is the tail of the dog and should not be wagging the dog," he concludes.