Regulators fear for future-proof WHW

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June 27, 2022 † External supervisors warn Minister Dijkgraaf that the Higher Education Act (WHW) is not future-proof. Developments in digitization, flexibility and internationalization cannot be sufficiently incorporated into the WHW, they write in a letter to the ministry.

Hoftoren in The Hague, residence of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. Photo: Ruben de Rijcke

NVAO, the Education Inspectorate and the Higher Education Efficiency Committee (CDHO), the three independent organizations responsible for the external oversight of higher education and united in the ICN Steering Committee, are concerned about the future security of the WHW. When it was set up about thirty years ago, the enormous impact of digitization, flexibility and internationalization was not foreseen, the organizations write in a letter that ScienceGuide has seen. “It now raises urgent questions, also for us as external supervisors.” The changes to the WHW are not sufficient to meet this trend. That is why regulators are calling for “a more comprehensive and fundamental review of the legal framework.”

In fact, only OU is allowed to offer distance learning

The first point of concern is the digitalisation of higher education, according to the letter. Following the forced online education during the corona crisis, many educations continue to choose a mix of online education and on-site education. It is unclear when such a mix will take the form of a full-time, part-time or dual education – a case that needs to be clear in the case of accreditation.

In addition, the provision of distance learning at traditional universities is prohibited by law; only the Open University may do so. “The ban on offering distance learning at traditional universities seems neither useful nor sustainable,” write regulators, who wonder how far other higher education institutions can go with digitizing their curricula.

WHW does not offer guidance for flexible learning processes

In addition, the supervisors point to the difficulties that flexibility entails. If it is easier for students to follow separate modules and parts of other educations, sometimes even at different (international) institutions, then who will assess whether these modules together are worth a diploma? “WHW provides no guidance because the law uses education at an institution as a starting point for supervision, not smaller entities such as modules, tracks or standard abbreviated courses.”

Working with learning outcomes instead of programmed learning courses, something that the government wants to enable for all double and part-time courses in higher education, raises similar questions according to the supervisory authorities. “It is predictable that the issue of the minimum balance between the two will (must) remain a topic of discussion in the coming years.”

Things get even more complicated when a flexible learning path crosses the border between HBO and WO. The supervisors note in their letter that the boundaries between HBO and WO have been blurred because both levels of education offer educations from each other’s domain. Nevertheless, both colleges and universities, which do not provide for this blurring of roles, experience the WHW as “a straitjacket that they would like to expand”, the regulators write.

Fight influx and clarity about joints

The third point of concern for tutors is the internationalization of higher education. For example, it is difficult to stem the influx of international students, and in addition to the capacity fix, WHW offers few instruments to steer this influx in the right direction, they write in their letter.

The international movements of higher education institutions themselves, for example through participation in European universities, also raise questions that are not answered by the law on higher education and research, the supervisors note. Sometimes partners within such a European university want to start a joint study program with associated certification, something that Utrecht University has already done and that the NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences would like to do. However, this creates ambiguities regarding accreditation from the Netherlands.

“The question is who within such partnerships is responsible for the organization, content and quality of the education, and how such international educations with international admissions aimed at an international labor market fit into the macro-efficiency of the Dutch education offer and the financing system”, writes NVAO, Tilsynet and CDHO . “And how do we deal with the question of what language is obligatory or possible?”

The letter concludes with a call for Minister Dijkgraaf and the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to “reconsider the structure and management of higher education in these areas and transform the WHW into a future-proof, solid foundation for the higher education system.”

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