Timen Sijens analysed Dutch education policy: ‘The fundamental problems only worsen’

Have the Dutch Ministry of Education’s policies in the last thirty-odd years done much to improve the quality of higher education? No, concludes UG alumnus Timen Sijens, who wrote an award-winning thesis on the subject.

‘Ultimately, it is the lecturers’ proficiency that determines the quality of education’, the Education Council warned the ministry in 1985. But until 2013, the Ministry of Education’s documents hardly mention lecturers’ critical role, found Sijens (26). And that, he says, is the root of the problem.

The historian looked at how the quality of education has changed over time, and whether policies of the Ministry of Education have helped to improve it. He analysed public policy documents of the ministry and the Inspectorate of Education from 1985 to 2019.

Conflicting demands

The ministry’s relentless push for greater return on investment, such as boosting graduation rates, says Sijens, conflicts with the demand for quality education, especially in light of budget cuts for higher education until 2015. 

‘The main problem in higher education’, he explains, ‘is the unrecognised tension between universities’ focus on efficiency and the quality of education.’ 

One of the worst effects of this is a higher workload for lecturers, he says. ‘In my opinion, there is a gap between how the ministry thinks and how the educators at universities think.’

Thesis prize

Sijens, whose master thesis was supervised by associate professor of modern history Rik Peters, is the first to conduct research on the development of the quality of higher education in the long term. In recognition of his work, the Netherlands Court of Audit awarded him with its first-ever thesis prize this February. 

‘I definitely recommend everyone with a relevant thesis to apply for the prize next year’, he says, after winning 2,000 euros and, of course, the chance to present his findings to a wider audience.

As a student in the UG’s History Today programme, which explores issues of today through a historical lens, he was very interested in the practical ways of thinking about history, says Sijens. ‘For example, exploring how we can use history to make sure that organisations learn.’ 

This led him to focus on policy reviews, analysing how well policies actually work: ‘I’ve always thought that especially policy reviews are often ignored, and historians can do that well’.

More work

For his thesis, he looked at quality assurance policy: the kind of measures aimed at gathering and assessing information about education, he explains, like course evaluations. To find out more about the implementation of policies in practice, he also interviewed a number of teachers from the Faculty of Arts.

Talking to them, Sijens learned that incentives aimed at improving universities’ efficiency take their toll on them. Lecturers acknowledged the importance of quality assurance, but also expressed that it piles on more work, ultimately impacting the quality of education.

‘The number of students has grown rapidly over time, but the budget didn’t grow with it’, he says. That’s not news, but what caught his attention was that while the documents he studied highlighted both the need for more efficiency and the importance of improving quality, they failed to acknowledge the conflict between these goals. 

What’s more, no governing party has ever decided to increase the budget. And in the thirty-four-year period Sijens examined, almost all the big political parties were in power.

Systemic solutions

Quality controls only offer symptomatic, rather than systemic solutions, Sijens concludes. The finance model that rewards improved efficiency remains unchallenged and the important role that lecturers play goes unacknowledged in policies. ‘And so the fundamental problems only worsen.’

So what should the ministry do to address these issues? It should engage more with lecturers to bridge the gap in their perspectives, Sijens argues. ‘There should be critical discussions on the tension between efficiency and quality’, he feels. Without such changes, the workload of educators cannot be effectively managed, and quality cannot be increased.

It’s as the Education Council already advised the ministry in 1985, he says: the foundation of any quality policy should lie with the lecturers.


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