To improve student well-being, Dijkgraaf wants to relieve the pressure and curb the binding recommendation on continuation of studies (BSA). If first-year students obtain at least half of their credits, it will no longer be possible to send them down.
They will, however, have to obtain 30 credits again in the second year, he writes in a letter to the House of Representatives. So after studying for two years they will have collected at least 60 credits. This will give them more time to get accustomed to studying, in the view of the Minister.
According to the Ministry, the current norm is an average of 45 credits. The change (an average of 15 credits fewer) is intended to reduce the workload. And amendment is needed for it and that takes time: the plans are supposed to go into force in September 2025.
'Too much pressure has a paralysing effect and can cause a drop in performance, so it distorts the view of whether the student is suited to a particular study programme', Dijkgraaf says in a press release.
He feels that freshers already have enough to worry about. 'Students have a lot of things to deal with in the first year such as living in student accommodation, getting accustomed to studying and the student life, and standing on their own two feet.' His conclusion is that study programmes should therefore not set the bar too high.
It’s a bad plan, in the opinion of Pieter Duisenberg, President of Universities of The Netherlands (UNL). At an online press conference, he came up with figures and graphs to show that the present binding recommendation on continuation of studies works just fine.
Thanks to the BSA students understand more quickly where they stand, the research universities say. In fact, it is the weaker students who should benefit most from a high norm. That is because they work towards the norm: if the bar is set higher, they jump higher and will benefit from that through their programme.
A lower BSA norm will increase the workload of teaching staff, predicts Professor of Statistics in Groningen Casper Albers. He is involved in WOinActie, a movement that defends the interests of academic education, and was also present at the online press conference. His argument is that a lower norm means that weaker students remain longer in the programme and will require more attention. Albers says that if the Minister wants to proceed with his plan, he ought to make more money available.
Moreover, it would not be good for seniors to be in a work group with students who still have to catch up on first-year courses. The BSA plans could be detrimental to the teaching quality, the research universities believe.
Universities of applied sciences
The reaction of the universities of applied sciences reaction is calmer. 'There is a wide variety of institutions and study programmes in higher vocational education, all with their own identity and perception of their vocational programmes', says Maurice Limmen, Chair of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. 'Although the Minister is now setting a maximum for the BSA, institutions can continue making their own choices within the leeway the Minister is offering.'
In recent years, several universities of applied sciences have relaxed or even scrapped the BSA; others are planning to do so soon. So the trend seems to be to keep students studying longer, even though some universities of applied sciences would prefer things to be as they were.
The Dutch Student Union LSVb, however, is pleased. It’s a good move by the Minister, Union Chair Joram van Velzen suggests: 'Currently, the binding recommendation on continuation of studies is often used as a way of getting students sent down from the higher education institution as quickly as possible if they are providing insufficient benefits.' The union would prefer the binding recommendation on continuation of studies to be scrapped completely.
The Dutch National Students’ Association ISO also calls the plans a breath of fresh air. 'As far as we are concerned, the words binding and recommendation don’t belong together', says board member Sam de Fockert. 'This relaxation will ensure a better balance between the wellbeing of students and the progress of their studies.'
Dijkgraaf’s predecessor and D66 colleague Ingrid van Engelshoven also wanted to limit the BSA. In September 2018, she announced that the norm would be reduced to 40 credits in the first year. However, she had to back down, saying later that her main aim had been to 'put a cat among the pigeons'.
The plans have yet to be debated in the House of Representatives. That could be tricky, because the two largest coalition parties, VVD and D66, have opposing views on the BSA. The VVD is happy with a tough norm, while D66 is sceptical.
The coalition agreement says that the binding recommendation on continuation of studies would be altered, but how exactly? Students ought to get the opportunity to achieve the norm at least in their second year. 'If there is clear evidence of inadequate study progress, the institution retains the option to issue a binding recommendation on continuation of studies at the end of the first year and to help the student find a more suitable study programme.'
The research universities are proposing two alternatives. Their preference is to allow the study programmes themselves to decide, in consultation with the participation body, what norm suits them best. Should that be politically impracticable, set the higher, at up to 45 points for instance.