Dutch higher education used to be a symbol of the admirably laissez-faire ways of the Dutch. Recent economic circumstances places the wisdom of the entire education system into question. That’s a pity.
“Young people these days study what will make them the most money, instead of what they like to do. That’s not the way it used to be, and not the way it should be!” lamented an elderly Dutch man in his 70s to me at a bar in Rotterdam.
His husband of 40 years, who was standing next to him with a beer in his hand, pursed his lips and nodded in agreement.
“Oh?” I replied, feigning a concerned look of empathy-cum-surprise after I managed to decipher his very plat (heavily accented) Dutch above the loud and cheesy old-school Dutch music in the background.
That was unfortunately already old news to me. The current economic climate in the Netherlands is bringing a significant change to how the purpose of higher education is being viewed. Subsidies are evaporating in higher education and culture,
jobs are scarce and employment contracts are often only temporary. As the Dutch welfare state falls apart, idealism among the younger population follows suit.
Once Upon A Time
There was a reigning sense of freedom in Dutch higher education when I first landed in the Netherlands a few years ago. Freedom and accessibility of study choice stood front center; anything from archaeology and art history to industrial design and mechanical engineering were offered at Dutch universities from undergraduate all the way to postgraduate levels.
The idea of selectivity and competition for places in university was also refreshingly non-existent, with no quotas on the overwhelming majority of courses and relatively lax admission criteria for even the most challenging and sought-after programs. That someone is interested in the study, was seen as far more important than whether he is able to do it.
From a social perspective, Dutch higher education is extremely enviable. The (economic) hierarchy among the various professions becomes hereby relatively flat: an archaeologist has equal respect in society as an engineer. And to quote the above-mentioned old man at the bar, this is the way it should be.
It is therefore no wonder that, in comparison with my past-life in Singapore, my Dutch social circles are flush with people who have/had more or less chosen for an education in a persuasion which they have a genuine affinity for: sociology, anthropology, journalism, aerospace engineering, horticultural, philosophy, modern languages, just to name a few examples.
More interesting, many of them take/took more than the minimal number of years to finish their degrees, mostly as a result of high governmental student financial support and subsidized school fees. The average completion time for a 3-year bachelor’s degree program in the Netherlands is around 5 years, one of the longest in all the OECD countries. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is frequently under the public spotlight for having taken 8 years to graduate with a master’s in history, while Deputy Prime Minister Maxime Verhagen one-upped him by taking 11 years to attain his masters in contemporary history.
For Asian observers, for whom finishing ‘economically advantageous’ studies on time and with high grades is often a must, Dutch higher education sounds like an alternate reality.
And for a long time it was a viable alternate reality.
Traditionally, the economic survival of a country is dependent on the people who weld the hammers and whish the sickles. The Netherlands, however, happened to be one of the countries in the lofty echelons of development, for whom resources can be diverted from economic survival to more humanistic endeavors.
Many of the graduates in the softer alpha fields move on to Dutch governmental agencies, cultural institutes and non-profit organizations, for which public funding is instrumental in keeping them economically viable.
Yet, things have not been the same since the start of the Eurozone Crisis in 2009. According to the the Dutch Centrale Planbureau (CPB), the Dutch economy has remained at the same level since 2007, while governmental expenses continued to grow each year during the same period. Dutch governmental budget deficit is projected to grow to -4.9% in 2016, overtaking Spain, Ireland and Slovenia as the highest in Europe (IMF 2013). Furthermore, while Dutch unemployment rates is relatively low at 7 % compared with the European Union’s average of 10 %, it is one of the fastest rising in the Eurozone (Eurostat 2013).
Dutch parliament has been – and still is – struggling to get the country out of the red. Public spending of € 871 million on the national media organizations will decrease stepwise between 2013 and 2015 by € 128 million, putting hundreds of personnel in the public broadcasters out of work. Important cultural institutions such as the Mediafonds, which provides funding to cultural productions of special value and significance, might be closed down in a few years’ time. Childcare subsidies will also be cut down such that € 800 million can be saved in annual government spending by 2016.
The education budget is naturally not spared, with the much-beloved study financing program – a long-standing pillar of income for all Dutch university students – to be replaced by a borrowing scheme in the coming years.
The effects of the economic downturn and budget cuts are heart-breaking to see at street level. Paleontologists and archaeologists cycle from door-to-door delivering post on TNT Post bicycles. Journalists and graphic designers check out my groceries at the local Albert Heijn. Architects files and arranges insurance documents at the local insurance firms. Even master degree holders in labor law answer calls at the local call-centres. This is not even mentioning the remaining thousands of young graduates sitting at home living on a meagre ‘uitkering’ (unemployment payout), unable to find any decent employment.
With tens of thousands of invested taxpayer’s euros sunken into the diplomas of each and every un(der)employed (master) degree holder, and many thousands of euros more in individually incurred study debts, the once noble Dutch higher education system is slowly starting to seem like the backdrop for an economic nightmare.
This is not the situation I would have wanted to see. The Dutch higher education system had once provided me the space, freedom and time I didn’t have in Singapore to properly contemplate what I wanted to do in my life. It is therefore not without a deep sense of pity to hear increasingly more Dutch people bringing the once frowned upon idea of “beta triumphs alpha” into polite conversations.
As the world economic order changes, it would be great if we could hold on to the memory that, once upon a time, the idea of studying what you really want to do was once not such an absurd idea.
KUNGIE is writing this article as a foreigner and a currently in-between-jobs engineer. All examples in the text are based on real-life employment situations of his friends and acquaintances.