Some hope for Dutch students and professors

by Ingrid Robeyns on February 14, 2007

The Dutch educational and academic system is in crisis. In the last couple of years, media coverage on schools and universities has been rather alarming, with reports on high drop out rates, 18 year olds who can’t decently write and who think opinions are factual knowledge, primary schools teachers who don’t sufficiently master mathematics, the brain drain of the best university students, overworked university staff, cutting of budgets and so on and so forth.

But now there is hope. Today, the media reported that the new minister for education, research and culture will be Ronald Plasterk, a highly succesful biologist who is a “Professor of developmental genetics”: at Utrecht University. He has also been a columnist for the daily newspaper “De Volkskrant“: and has criticised the previous educational policies in his column for that newspaper. He is also known to be an atheist, which, in my view, is a good thing given that the coalition contains, next to Plaskerk’s social-democratic labour party “PVDA”:, two Christian parties (the center-right Christian Democratic Party “CDA”: and the left-bending “ChristianUnion”:

I very much hope that Plasterk will be as strong in politics as he has been succesful in the sciences, so that he can fix our educational and academic system….

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Dutch Courage at Jacob Christensen
02.14.07 at 10:15 pm



stuart 02.14.07 at 9:27 pm

So is the Dutch educational/academic system actually in crisis? From previous experience with the UK media, just because some topic has become good at attracting public interest often has little to do with the actual situation being dire, or even having any particular problems.


Tracy W 02.14.07 at 9:36 pm

Has Robert Plasterk any experience of successfully teaching low-performing students?

If not, I’d bet against him having any impact.


Elliott Oti 02.14.07 at 9:47 pm

That’s “Ronald Plasterk”, not “Robert Plasterk”.


ingrid 02.14.07 at 10:01 pm

Elliott, thanks, I’ve corrected the mistake (with apologies to Prof. Plasterk, but he surely has better things to do than reading this blog, I’m sure). At least that shows I don’t know the guy and hence my optimism is entirely based on what he has written and said in the media.

Tracy, my hopes are not based on his teaching experience, but rather on his sharp analytical mind, and I very much hope that since he is an outsider and doesn’t “need” politics for his bread and butter, that he will be less vulnerable to party-pressures. Perhaps this is naive, but both the educational system and the academic system can be improved significantly – someone got to take the political leadership to initiate these changes.


Jacob Christensen 02.14.07 at 10:03 pm

When you refer to alarming media coverage, it’s a bit difficult to figure out where you stand in the question – after all alarmist media are not always credible. But here is my perspective with 9 years experience as a university teacher in Sweden:

1. High drop out rates

I haven’t got the overall picture in Sweden. It is discussed ad nauseam in Denmark, especially with reference to first year-students and students who never finish their M.A.-thesis.

2. 18 year olds who can’t decently write

I don’t know what they learn in Swedish schools. But many students appear never to have learned how to express themselves in a clear and intelligible way. The problem is: Is the average 18 year-old weaker now compared with 25 years ago, or is it the average 18 year old first year-student who is weaker?

Given the explosion in student numbers the latter alternative seems the more likely. But it still has consequences for higher education.

3. 18 year olds who think opinions are factual knowledge

Standard answer to students working on a report: “No, you can’t just have an opinion. You must present an argument.”

4. Primary schools teachers who don’t sufficiently master mathematics

2+2=5. What’s your problem with that? Students choose political science because they don’t have to do quantitative analysis. Great for us.

5. The brain drain of the best university students

I actually don’t think this is a general problem in Sweden. Where do Dutch students go? The UK?

6. Overworked university staff and 7. Cutting of budgets

As the author who wrote the textbook I read in my “Public Administration 101”-course said: Just throwing money after a problem helps – but there isn’t an endless supply.

However, student groups have become more heterogenous during the last 15 years – and over the same period the break-even point for courses given at Swedish universities has increased with 50% due to budget cuts. As a rule of thumb, a course in Political Science would break even with 20 students in the early 1990s, now the number is something like 30-35.

You do the maths. If you can.

And then we have Bologna which means that a fifth year of study has to be introduced in most subjects at Swedish universities without any extra resources being allocated.

I could write something nasty about Danish higher education policies (basically the idea is to create a number of “Danish MITs” by just merging existing instutitions and creating mammoth mass universities) but it’s late in the evening up here, so…


jasper emmering 02.14.07 at 11:40 pm

There are three crises wrecking European universities.

(1) It’s better to be a consultant than a scientist.
There is a relative lack of money for PhDs and other researchers (esp. combined with a lack of post-PhD career opportunities that would put the PhD-student on a similar career track as someone who has left academia 4 years earlier).

(2) It’s way too massive.
Teachers have to deal with far more students than ever before. Back in the 1950s professors actually taught students and knew their students. These days, first year law-school classes in Amsterdam have 200+ attendants.

(3) Degrees have lost their worth.
Students have to deal with far more other students than ever before. You can’t expect a university education to be as elite as it once was when it no longer is as elite as it once was. Duh.

All three problems could be solved by making a university education a scarce good again, like it once was back in the days when you had to have studied Latin to get into lawschool. But somehow I doubt that this would be the solution.


SG 02.15.07 at 1:37 am

Isn`t the Netherlands experiencing a conservative backlash? Conservative revivals are always accompanied by a) racist fear b) attacks on university credibility and c) claims taht socialised education is making everyone dumb. It has happened in the US, Australia and NZ. I know nothing about the Netherlands but if 1) it is undergoing a conservative revival and 2) the media are full of stories about how the education system is in crisis I would first rule out the possibility of conservative trouble-making before I started to worry.


stuart 02.15.07 at 1:52 am

I dont think European governments are being particularly egalitarian or progressive in pushing for more and more students going through university, it is just about the only solution to improve your workforces chances of competing on the world markets as competition for more and more highly skilled jobs keeps coming from China, India and so on. Of course it has some problems as you point out which have to be solved or mitigated, but I think the dilution of university education (in terms of commonality) is not necessarily a bad thing for society, although it means it gives less advantage to each student that pursues it, as they will have more competition once (if) they graduate.

The problems with funding, class sizes, and making teaching a more valid career choice and so on, but based on current enrolment targets, need addressing, which largely comes down to governments being prepared to get the voters to pay out now or risk paying heavily for it later when the country has little to offer the world markets, likely to lead to a comparative drop in living standard for its populace, maybe followed by brain drain of many of the best remaining to more competitive economies.


Tracy W 02.15.07 at 3:03 am

Tracy, my hopes are not based on his teaching experience, but rather on his sharp analytical mind, and I very much hope that since he is an outsider and doesn’t “need” politics for his bread and butter, that he will be less vulnerable to party-pressures. Perhaps this is naive, but both the educational system and the academic system can be improved significantly

In everything I have read about education, to teach low-income kids effectively is like building an airplane that flies safely. You need to get a hell of a lot of things right. If one of them isn’t right, then some kids will fail to learn. See this article on Student Programme Alignment and Teaching to Mastery by Siegfried Engelmann (a man who has taught low-performing kids successfully) for some of the features.

A lot of really smart people have tried to design effective educational systems and failed. Expecting Ronald Plasterk to design an effective education system because he’s got a sharp analytical mind is like expecting him to design an safe, fast aeroplane because he’s got an analytical mind.

Oh, and I suspect most of his likely advisors have never taught low-performing kids successfully.


Tracey 02.15.07 at 5:37 am

Read this report? Those poor Dutch must envy us.


a 02.15.07 at 6:28 am

Re 11: My thoughts entirely. I’d be curious to know what someone in the Netherlands thinks about this survey.


ingrid 02.15.07 at 7:56 am

tracey (#11) and a (#12): I read the report yesterday but it got to late to write a post about it. I’ll try today.


dutchmarbel 02.15.07 at 9:32 am

The problem is with universities and post-universities, not with the level up to highschool. In the last international comparisons (OECD PISA 2003 (pdf) and TIMSS2003 the Netherlands scored in the top 10 with almost anything.


Robd 02.15.07 at 12:22 pm

The lament “the educational system is in crisis” is something that comes up every few years;
there is always need for improvement.

However, I like Plasterk being in the cabinet;
a man of proven quality.
Whether he will be politically effective is another matter; being right not always means getting it.


Ingrid Robeyns 02.15.07 at 1:15 pm

For those who think there is nothing seriously wrong with the Dutch (pre-university) education, here are a few examples

“68 percent of those being educated to become teachers failed a language test”:

“the president of the council for higher education claims that students’s skills in calculus and writing are dramatic”:

“Greetje van der Werf, Professor in education and learning at the University of Groningen, reports on the negative consequences of the New Learning, at all levels of education”:

it seems to me that anyone who has read the columns by Leo Prick in the daily newspaper NRC can’t deny that there are real problems at all levels, and not just by a media circus or anxieties produced by a conservative backlash, or something similar.


a 02.15.07 at 10:28 pm

#16 OK but then why are the Dutch near the top in studies comparing students from different countries? Are you saying the method used has no value (in which case, Americans don’t have to worry when they finish near the bottom)? Or are you saying that the Dutch are bad (but everyone else is just as bad or worse…)?


Ingrid Robeyns 02.17.07 at 7:43 pm

a @ #17: the discrepancy between the views from the grounds and the PISA & Co testresults where on the top frontpage of the NRC Thursday or Friday. It seems that nobody knows precisely what is going on. Perhaps the PISA-results do not yet reflect the damage that the “new Learning” has done. Some have also claimed that there are serious limits to how well we can measure the quality of the educational system. Also, PISA etc. don’t measure university students (as far as I know), and some argue that this is where the problems are visible in the Netherlands, since talent is not nurtured or encouraged to develop. I don’t claim to know what precisely is going on, but I can’t believe that this is the best this country can do.

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