Participation in part-time higher education is drastically declining. In the past ten years (October 2003-2013) the number of first-year part-time students enrolled in a publicly funded higher education institution (“HEI”) fell by more than 52%. This decline is largely due to the inflexibility of part-time education and the lack of customised study programmes; probably as a result of a rigid legal regime. In this regard the Commission on Flexible Higher Education for Employees advised the government on making lifelong learning more attractive, for example by experimenting with ‘demand side funding’ and deregulation. The cabinet shows sincere willingness to follow most of the commission’s advice by committing to invest 65 million Euro in ‘flexibility measures’ for the years 2015-2019. In this blog post I will focus on one important measure: demand-side funding.
The debate on ‘demand-side funding’ has a long history and was recently proposed by the former State Secretary of Education Mark Rutte (2004) in the form of ‘leerrechten’ (vouchers). The traditional funding of higher education institutes would be replaced by student-based funding. Students would be free to choose to study at a public or private higher education institute. The plan was unsuccessful after a change of cabinet. The decline of part-time higher education forced the cabinet to rethink demand-side funding.
The idea is to finance part-time students (demand-side) instead of the HEIs (supply-side). These experiments will be conducted in the care, social welfare and technology sectors (university of applied sciences-level). Every part-time student will receive €1.250 per 30 ECTS. The student is free to choose to study at a (traditionally) publicly funded HEI (such as Hogeschool Leiden) or a private HEI (such as Leidse Onderwijsinstellingen). In order to have a sort of ‘competitive neutrality’ between the two HEIs, publicly funded HEIs are allowed to offer their programmes in modular form (just as private HEIs are allowed to) and both HEIs can freely (within a certain range) determine their college fees.
The main goal of demand-side funding is that HEIs will respond better to the needs of the students, which will improve the overall quality and access to education. However it is unsure what the exact risks are and whether this idea is only applicable for low-cost study programmes. That is why the cabinet cautiously proposed a temporary experiment.
Is this the right path?
The idea of demand-side financing and increased competition seems a good step towards making part-time education more ‘marketable’. However I am afraid that the redistribution of public funds will result in a shutdown of part-time study programmes offered by public HEIs. Also the administrative burden on public HEIs will most likely be increased, since the part-time ‘division’ of public HEIs will operate more as a business. Public HEIs therefore have to be (even more) careful not to overstep european regulations such as european state aid law.
What do you think? Are we heading in the right direction with part-time higher education? Or do you have different ideas on solving the decline of part-time education? I look forward to your comments.