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Flexible learning pilot stops abruptly; Dijkgraaf has second thoughts

25 Jan 2023

The experiment with flexible learning, in which students were allowed to pay per credit and could study at their own pace, has come to a sudden end. The ministry has informed the institutions of this.

At certain higher education institutions students were able to opt for flexible learning. They paid tuition fees only for the courses they took that year. That was beneficial to people such as top-level athletes, informal carers, members of participation councils and students running their own business.

The House of Representatives was so pleased with this experiment that the previous Education Minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, was already given the green light to start work on a bill to enshrine ‘payment per credit’ in legislation. She was enthusiastic about it.

Her successor, Robbert Dijkgraaf, was too, initially. He expected to be able to present a bill in the spring of 2023. He endeavoured to assuage concerns about the system.


But for the time being it is not going ahead. Dijkgraaf has told higher education institutions that he is not yet willing to put forward a bill. He plans to include the possibility of flexible learning in his ‘foresight study’, which he intends to complete in the next few months.

‘Flexible learning has its advantages and disadvantages’

So the experiment will end in September. This is something that the participating institutions had not expected. Some students could have problems with the schedule agreed with their supervisors.

The Dutch Student Union is not happy about it. ‘Flexible learning has its advantages and disadvantages’, says union chair Joram van Velzen. ‘It makes it easier for you to do things alongside your studies, so it can be great for students who are members of councils. The risk is that you lose your connection with your study programme: who is the point of contact for flexible learners?’ In Van Velzen’s view, the pilot should be continued until a bill is ready or until the idea of legislation is abandoned.

‘We have heard about it too’, says Jos Steehouder, spokesperson for the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. ‘We have the feeling that it’s still possible to discuss it with the ministry and see what can be done to change it. But if flexible learning is indeed stopped on 1 September, some students will lose their ‘customised coursework’ and they generally have good reasons for making use of it.’

All higher education?

It is not yet known why Dijkgraaf is hitting the brakes; the ministry was unable to comment. It might be because some of the parties, VVD for example, want flexible learning to be introduced in all higher education, the reasoning being that it ought to be available to more than just a few students in specific study programmes. Surely flexible learning could be good for everyone?

‘Introducing flexible learning on such a broad scale will definitely not contribute to the space and stability that I want to create in the system’

Dijkgraaf did not like that idea. ‘Introducing flexible learning on such a broad scale will definitely not contribute to the space and stability that I want to create in the system’, he told the House of Representatives last April. A system change of that nature could have major consequences for the organisation, administration and finances of higher education institutions. ‘Ultimately, it would have an effect on the teachers, who could easily become overburdened’, Dijkgraaf said. So nine months later he has put flexible learning on the back burner.

The experiment began in September 2017 at two universities of applied sciences (Utrecht and Windesheim) and two universities (Tilburg and UvA Amsterdam). In 2019 Utrecht University joined them. Since September 2021 the experiment has also been carried out at Hanze University of Applied Sciences, HKU University of the Arts Utrecht and The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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