The Dutch coalition government has announced cuts of up to EUR500 million (US$681 million) a year for higher education, penalties for students and universities if they fail to complete their degree after four years, and the abolition of grants for masters students. University rectors and the mayors of university cities warned that the cuts would "push the Netherlands out of the world’s top 10 knowledge economies".
The measures drew record numbers of protestors - 15,000 students and a procession of 1,000 university staff - in The Hague last month. The Dutch national student union LSVB, together with the rectors and mayors, is circulating a manifesto in protest at the cuts. The main target of the protests is Halbe Zijlstra (pictured), Junior Minister for Higher Education.
Addressing protesters in The Hague Zijlstra, of the right-wing VVD party, said the budget reduction and student time limit were necessary to keep spending on student loans down. The government is also penalising universities with a EUR3,000 fine for every student spending one year more than allocated for their degree, and stopping all grants for masters studies.
The Netherlands has 600,000 students, a teaching staff of 52,000 and another 8,000 teaching staff at medical faculties. The LSVB claims that the cuts will lead to redundancy for 5,000 to 7,000 academics by 2015, but this figure is disputed by the government.
Jeroen Torenbeek of Utrecht University, a senior specialist in international education and former director of the European Association of International Education (EAIE), told University World News: "The government wants to limit the period of study. Students tend to take more time to graduate, since many of them are working alongside doing their studies.
"They will be punished by doubling the fees for the years after the nominal period plus one year. I think it can work. But this does not mean that it is the best measure."
Bettina Nelemans, head of education at the James Boswell Institute at Utrecht, said: "These are rather severe cutbacks, which will have a huge effect both on universities as well as students."
Zijlstra said claims of 5,000 to 7,000 staff redundancies by 2015 were "over the top", and that most universities could start using their accumulated reserves, estimated by the ministry at EUR2.9 billion, to offset the cuts.
But academics say this argument is flawed because the assets may be held in buildings and laboratories, not capital accumulation.
Jodien Houwers, of the department of international relations at Groningen University, said: "We feel that the careful budgeting over the years at Groningen University is now penalized by unrealistic governmental advice on capital realisation.
"We cannot sell our university buildings on the market. This lack of manoeuvring space might be dangerous for Groningen University and Dutch higher education institutions."
On 21 January, demonstrators faced riot police and 25 people were detained. The manifesto, released after the protest, voices grave concerns about the negative impact the cuts will have on employment and the social and cultural climate of the country and cities.
Alexander Rinnooy Kan, Secretary General of the Dutch Social and Economic Council and of the Knowledge and Innovation Agenda - a coalition of 33 non-governmental actors in education, science and innovation, employers’ associations and trade unions - said that by not raising salaries for teachers and researchers and by reducing the budget for public-private partnerships in research, the government will spend roughly EUR1 billion less on knowledge and innovation in 2015.
"This is in stark contrast to the extra money needed, roughly EUR2 billion a year from 2015, to reach a similar level of knowledge investment as the US, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries by 2020," he said.
Professor Jo Ritzen, outgoing Rector of Maastricht University and a former higher education minister, said major industries desperately needed the public research environment to continue to locate private R&D in the Netherlands.
"There is a serious risk that government attempts to retain and improve the position of the Netherlands among the top five in university education and research will be run aground," Ritzen added. "It is difficult to understand why a government would want to wreak havoc."
* A 21 January procession of 1,000 university staff dressed in academic robes is thought to be the largest in history and discussions are under way with the Guinness World Book of Records to have the event listed in their next edition.
by Jan Petter Myklebust