The Dutch government's plans for a radical overhaul of the tertiary education sector have been criticised by an independent review committee, further fuelling the heated political debate on the future of university study.
The De Moor committee, which will officially publish it findings in a couple of weeks, dismissed the need for a fundamental change in the university system.
"It seems that the state's financial problems rather than any fundamental flaws in the education system are the reason for the government's plans, " said Ruud de Moor, the chairman of the committee, which recommends improving the system's quality and efficiency, rather than radical change.
The government is proposing a more market-driven, decentralised education system with stricter selection procedures, better management and more internationally recognisable academic titles. A new student loan system is being considered which will convert loans grants only if students meet certain levels of achievement.
Saddled with a 500 million guilder cut in this year's budget, the education ministry also planned to raise annual tuition fees by around 1,000 guilders or about 40 per cent by 1997, but was forced to make a compromise last week, after weeks of fierce opposition from universities and students. It has now agreed to a 500 guilder increase spread over the next three years, extending the measure to cover 75,000 part-time students.
De Moor agreed that universities should be stricter in their selection of students, but added that this should be done during the first two years of study and not a pre-entry basis as had been proposed. Students should be able to complete the first stage of their university course (propadeuse) in two years and that it should be clear after this period whether students have the academic ability to continue with their studies, the committee said.
Universities should also be less sympathetic towards students who fail to reach academic standards required.
De Moor said a stricter selection would mean more students would shift to other higher education institutions where they could follow new shorter courses, geared more towards practical skills.
In a new bid to pacify unrest at universities and among students last week, the education ministry invited representatives from both groups to join a steering committee chaired by the education minister Jo Ritzen. The committee aims to draw up proposals for improving the quality of higher education.
Having had a firm ideas about the way the review should proceed the government has now opened up the issue for wider debate, an education ministry spokesman said.
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for the current government which is paying the price for an open-ended student financing system that ran out of control during the 1980s, with students taking twice as long to finish the equivalent of a bachelor's degree. Today, students still average 5.7 years to complete a four-year university course.