She hopes the next government will invest a substantial amount in higher education, Van Engelshoven made known in Parliament during an hours’ long debate about financial responsibility. About a billion euros are needed, she repeated. 'That’s no longer up to me.'
She also looked ahead to changes in student financing: maintain the revenue from the student loan system, she urged MPs. Because educational institutions use that money to make improvements to education — even if individual students don’t always notice the difference, she conceded. As she puts it: you can never guarantee that everyone will.
Student travel entitlement
And then she came on to the discussion of the cutbacks of €149 million which had surfaced in the government’s Spring Memorandum. The money is intended to cover extensions to student financing and the student travel entitlement, both coronavirus support measures.
Earlier in the debate, the new party Volt had expressed some criticism. It appears that the government sees education as a 'cost item', while alarms are ringing and education requires improvements. GroenLinks also wanted to know what exactly had happened with the €149 million in cuts and hoped that they would be reversed.
Van Engelshoven’s own party D66 has already submitted an amendment to forestall the cuts. It’s on the agenda next week, during the debate on the Spring Memorandum itself. Nonetheless, the Minister took the time to explain how it came about.
The outgoing government has taken the decision to offer a support package for two years, she explained. When the time comes, the next government can have a look at what will be needed after that. Take, for instance, catching up with setbacks in scientific research: 'There, too, they will have to review the situation: has everything now been done or perhaps we have to take a decision on it once more?'
But the cost item for extending travel entitlements for students will be carried forward, she explained. These costs will only appear after those two years. 'Technicalities of the budget' require every expenditure to be entered somewhere. There isn’t any real intention to cut spending, she said.
She could well understand that criticism had been offered. ‘Couldn’t you have explained this more clearly before?’ To which I say: Yes, I should have done so. But incidentally, we did disclose this to the educational institutions as is right and proper.'
The latter point is at least half true. Institutions were informed, but they are definitely not happy about it. The universities are 'up in arms'.
At this point in the debate, PvdA interrupted her. 'It feels like a disrespectful spending cut. Let’s compare that for a moment with the support given to Booking.com and KLM. And how do you explain it to the people who ‘went under’ in the water of the Hofvijver in protest?'
Van Engelshoven laughed this off. 'I can well understand that technicalities are sometimes a bit complicated, but right now you are lumping a lot of things together and these apples and oranges are extremely different.'
A bad look
She again underscored the point that €8.5 billion has been earmarked for the National Educational Programme, and another €645 million for rises in student numbers. The next government will have to decide about longer-term issues, hence this expenditure has to appear somewhere in the budget. 'Does it look bad? Yes, I completely agree with you. But that’s how it happened.'
D66 ran to her aid. The billions for KLM are in the form of loans and Booking.com has paid back its coronavirus support.
But whether Van Engelshoven actually managed to convince her own party remains to be seen. Next week the D66 amendment is on the agenda, which seeks to overturn these cuts — technicality or not.