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You want to graduate? Great. Please pay this 3,000 euro fine before you pass the finish line.

July 11, 2012

The judge has spoken: the “langstudeerboete” is legal.

What the heck is “langstudeerboete,” you ask? (Oh, Dutch language and its love for compound nouns.) It translates to “extension fine,” a 3,000 euro fine students have to pay if they take too long to finish their degree. Though I don’t want to get into a lengthy explanation of the Dutch higher education system, I need to give a little background so those of you coming to this from a non-Dutch background can understand why the government believes such a fine (which according to the national student union will affect approximately 60,000 students) is necessary.

In The Netherlands, you can pursue two types of undergraduate degrees: 4-year ones at universities of applied sciences (called HBOs in Dutch) and 3-year ones at research universities (universiteit). Masters are done at (or in conjunction with) research universities and take 1-2 years depending on the type of degree (research or regular) and the field (medical fields work a little differently). Despite these set times, many students take several years more than whatever is “normal” for their program, which puts major financial strain on the university or college as well as government subsidies, because (despite major fee increases and reforms) higher education is still quite heavily subsidized here.

Under the new system, students who go over their set time (so three or four years depending on the undergraduate degree and one or two years for a graduate degree) by more than a year will have to pay this 3,000 euro fine. At first glance, this seems pretty reasonable. It’s not impossible to finish a degree on time (I graduated on schedule with both my undergraduate degrees and am also on schedule for my Master’s); many students do so without any trouble whatsoever. An extra year before a fine comes into play should be enough, right? But there are many sticky points.

Firstly, this fee was conceived of and pushed through by our most recent government, which collapsed in April (new elections are scheduled for September 12). This not only means that it’s quite likely there won’t be majority support for the measure after the elections, but also that it affects students who had already started working on their degrees when this government came into power. To put it simply, the rules changed while they were playing the game. The judge declared this legal today, so who am I to disagree with that, but it does seem unfair.
Secondly, social student life in The Netherlands is predicated on certain ambitious students taking a year out of their program while organizing activities for student organizations. In order to do so, however, they need to remain enrolled, which means that their one year of leniency will be entirely taken up by this, leaving no room for illness, family circumstances, extra work to financially support one’s education, study abroad (in some cases), elective internships, or more time to work on the mandatory senior thesis.  Student organizations are already having trouble finding new members for their committees and boards and it is thus far unclear if they’re be able to remain afloat.
Which brings me to my third problem: special circumstances. There is no dispensation for students who fall ill, who have disabilities or mental issues which cause them to complete their degrees more slowly, or who have to take care of their families and themselves in the case of family deaths or family illness.  One might argue that a year should still be enough to take care of most special circumstances, but the problem with those is that they’re never homogeneous. A student might fail a semester due to mono in one year, for instance, and then have a parent die in another. A year might not be enough. And we will “reward” that student’s ambition to complete their degree in the face of hardship by slapping them with a fine.
Finally, there are many issues regarding the internationalization of education which the government is pushing really hard. They – and the universities – want students to gain experience abroad, through summer schools, internships, and studying abroad. But the credits gained in that experience don’t always translate to the student’s own program. I managed to study abroad for a full year and still graduate on schedule, but I had a supportive department which was willing to work with me on the distribution of my credits. Students in other programs, law for instance, often go abroad because they want the experience, but don’t get rewarded with full credits . Or they might miss a mandatory course which is only taught in a certain term – catching up on that might cause a bit of a delay, too. The lucky and ambitious student would still be able to complete a lot of time abroad, finish all their mandatory courses at home, and still graduate on time, but any other special circumstances could severely mess things up.

These are just a few of the issues surrounding this fine. But that’s not to say that there aren’t good things coming out of it, too. Many 6th, 7th, 8th year students have, under the threat of this fine, finally pulled themselves together, finished their theses and internships, completed a few courses for which they never handed in that pesky final paper, and are now graduating. These students, like I said before, were a drain on the finances of universities across the country and this fine has finally inspired them to finish up and move on. Great stuff! But the other problems do remain, and it will be interesting to see how they’ll be resolved. Students will need their universities to step up to the plate and make sure they can offer the support these students need to graduate as educated, professional, well-rounded individuals. Universities will need to take a big step in their internationalization policies, integrating them more fully into the curricula and programs. This can be done. My first university, in Breda, had international fieldwork in Asia and a 6-month international internship as part of its standard International Tourism Management and Consultancy program. Without doing those, you could not complete your degree. But ensuring that all students could do this required a major investment: sponsorship from the airline with which we flew to Thailand, an international office staffed with professionals, an international internship liaison who would look for new internships, maintain relationships with old host companies, organize application procedures for these internships, etc.

Only by integrating the social and curricular repercussions of this fine into individual programs and universities at large will we be able to students graduate on time with the skills we want them to possess. And as educators, that’s all we want in the end, right? The government wants to have a highly educated population while cutting funding left, right, and center. We know that’s not working; we know it won’t work. As individual educators, tiny cogs in a massive machine, all we can do is advocate for our students (present and future), prepare them for their professional futures, and help protect them from unfair financial punishment that is beyond their control.

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