The Costs of Excellence

By Rens Bakker & Annerijn Vink

 “The recent increases in tuition fees made me angry. It is already hard to pay for UCU, while financial matters shouldn’t be in the way of education,” third-year student Saar says. Two years ago she took the plunge. Now, she has a debt of more than 15.000 euros and has to live with very little pocket money.

What is it that makes UCU so expensive? Why do we pay more and more every year? And, most importantly: what about UCU’s accessibility for students from a less privileged background?

The UCU fees are comprised of a tuition fee and a room & board fee. Out of a tuition fee of €3.500, €750 goes to scholarships for international students. The rest is spent on our education: the tuition system, the small classes, the facilities, etc. The room & board fee goes to living and eating on campus (see the box “Room & Board”). In total, the fees add up to almost €12.000, excluding personal expenses.

UCU has not always been this expensive. When it started in 1998, students paid the same tuition fee as every regular Dutch student, and housing and food cost less than nowadays. The big increase started in 2006 with the introduction of the International Profile Fee (IPF), which made it possible to set up a scholarship fund for international students and invest in the internationalization of our education.

graph ucu prices

graph ucu prices (1)

Over the course of the years, studying at UCU has become over 30% more expensive (see the box “Increasing Fees”).

Comparing our education and living expenses to those of a student in a Dutch program, UC students pay more than 70% more per year (see the box “Comparing with the average”).


The high costs create a threshold for possible students to apply. Saar: “Initially, applying to UCU was out of the question because it was so expensive. My parents convinced me to look into it. But it is almost impossible to pay for UCU if you don’t have a little money at your disposal.”

Third-year student Kavish Bisseswar shares these concerns. Last year, he published an article in the university magazine (DUB) which addressed the consequences of UCU’s high fees. “After years of continuously increasing costs, it has become almost impossible for a baker’s son to pay the monthly bill of almost a thousand euros, even if he borrows the maximum possible amount from the government.” A year later, he still thinks that the problem is pressing. “Compared with an average student at the UU, the average Dutch UCU student is from a more privileged environment.”

Has campus indeed become elitist? Dean Rob van der Vaart thinks not. “Fifteen years ago, when the fees were lower, the student population wasn’t that diverse either. In some environments, people like this type of education more than in others.”

According to Van der Vaart, those who really want to, can go to UCU. “You might have to work a day per week and take the maximum loan, but UCU is still accessible.” He emphasizes that the high costs are also a matter of perception: “In many programs it takes you 4,5 years to graduate. Here you do it in three. From that perspective we’re not much more expensive.”

Paying the bills

Managing their finances is a challenge for those students whose parents can’t give any financial support. Saar: “Although my situation stimulates me to work hard for my academics, it also creates a lot of pressure. I need all the money I get from the government to pay for UCU. I have a job to be able to go out and have fun in my free time. I work during the semesters, during the winter break and during the summer break. I also worked full-time for one month before, and two months after my exchange. Fortunately, I’ll graduate with a good diploma. That’s what makes it worthwhile.”

Saar is still lucky compared to future students’ situation. The Dutch government will soon abolish a big part of the student finance program and convert it into a loan system. When that happens, the maximum debt after three years at UCU will amount to more than €30.000.

According to Kavish, this prospect forms a significant psychological threshold. “The idea of a debt of tens of thousands of euros scares off many students. In some environments, where debts are shunned and the value of going to university – let alone doing Liberal Arts & Sciences – is not always acknowledged, choosing UCU is almost an impossible decision to take.”

Price increases

The instalment of the International Profile Fee – now incorporated in the higher tuition fee – was the beginning of a series of price increases that continues up until today. The main reason was the need to compensate for a decrease in funding from Utrecht University (UU). In three years from now, the annual extra subsidy of more than one million euros will have decreased to zero.

Prof. Hans Amman, member of the Executive Board of the UU, explains: “We have given UCU extra subsidies from the beginning. Because it was a new project and offers a more expensive form of education, it was both necessary and justified. But we cannot keep doing this forever. Extra money has to come from other faculties, and it’s unfair if that continues for too long. Solidarity will diminish if faculties structurally see money flowing to UCU that was initially meant for their own students.”

“I was quite angry when the UU decided to stop our extra subsidy, but from their perspective I understand it,” Van der Vaart says. He could have made a fuss at the negotiation table, demanding more support. But to Van der Vaart, it is especially important to maintain a good relationship with the rest of the UU. “Money is important, but having good teachers even more. We depend on the faculties that provide us with good teachers. They will not accept it if we keep getting money that is actually meant for them.”

Van der Vaart points out that the Dutch government has continuously decreased its spending on higher education for the past decades. “The trend is that less money comes from The Hague (seat of the Dutch government, red.). Consequently, more is asked from the students. That is unfortunate for UCU, but it harms other parts of the university even more.”

Amman agrees that the problem lies in The Hague: “The government gives no extra money for small-scale honors education. We cannot decide to structurally give this extra money ourselves, since that would affect the quality of our other students’ education. We have no choice but to ask it from the students.”

For Van der Vaart the circumstances are as they are. “There is nothing we can do about this as long as parliament doesn’t set different priorities,” he says. “Some years ago we cut courses, increased the average class size and stopped using Descartes, the fourth academic building. More cuts are out of the question, as that would hurt the quality of our education.” Even though this makes raising the fees inevitable, he wants to keep that to a bare minimum. “I will do and have done all I can to minimize costs.”

Political reactions

The Dutch political parties disagree about what the government should do about the increasing costs for programs like UCU. Paul van Meenen, MP for the social-liberal opposition party D66, is against higher fees for honors education. “It is not the students who should pay for excellent education, but the government. That’s why we propose to give more money to excellent education.”

The views of the social-democratic coalition party PvdA are more nuanced. MP Mohammed Mohandis says: “Higher fees for students are a necessary evil due to budget deficits.” But in principle, even though his own minister Jet Bussemaker publicly supports the differentiation of fees, he opposes it. “We’re critical and hesitant about it. In the future, when money becomes available as a result of the cuts in the student finance program, we would like to reverse the differentiation as much as possible.”

Whether that’s a realistic scenario, remains to be seen. The other coalition party, the liberal right-wing VVD, is in favor of differentiated fees. “We want to give students all opportunities to excel. If that’s more expensive, everyone should be allowed to make that investment in himself, as long as the extra costs are reasonable and good loan opportunities are available,” says MP Pieter Duisenberg.

Future perspectives

The prospects for UCU’s accessibility are gloomy. Rob van der Vaart: “We’re at a critical point. If the costs rise more or the government support erodes further, the accessibility will be in danger. We could become too elitist and too isolated. But we can’t do it for less. There is no fat on the bones anymore.”

He expects that the trend of decreasing government subsidies will continue. “If I were you, I would go out on the streets and protest. But in the end, it’s like the weather. You can complain about it, but it will happen anyway.”

Due to privacy reasons, Saar’s name is fictitious.


Box: Room & Board

We pay 780 euros every month for Room & Board (10 times per year). This is where the money goes to:

Rent 313
Service (security,   furniture, …) 119
Internet, phone 17
Heating 46
Electricity 29
Dining Hall 150
Personnel (4,4 fte) 48
Projects &   Activities (sports   facilities, piano, …) 7
Other 23
Surplus 28
Total 780

Dirk Reedijk, UCU’s Financial Controller, explains why the Room & Board fees have increased over the years:

–       increasing rent, until the new contract was signed in 2012

–       increasing energy costs

–       increasing costs of Dining Hall, until the new credit-based system was introduced in September 2012

He emphasizes that some costs are heavily influenced by students’ lifestyle. The costs for heating and electricity are extraordinarily high compared to average households, largely due to inefficient use.

Source: Budget Room & Board for 2013


Comparing with the average

UCU Average Dutch student UCU compared with    average
Tuition fee 3.500 1.835 +91%
Food / groceries 1.804 1.520 +19%
Housing 6.300 3.410 +85%
Totaal 11.604 6.765 +72%

 Source of Dutch average numbers: National Institute for Budget Information (NIBUD).  The tuition fee is a yearly amount; all other costs are for 10 months. For UCU, ‘Food / groceries’ combines 8 months of Dining Hall with 2 months of average grocery shopping. For housing, UCU students receive more services than average students.


*The numbers mentioned in this article apply to students with an EU/EEA nationality. The Dutch student finance system (studiefinanciering) is open to all students with a Dutch nationality, as well as to EU/EEA citizens who work more than 56 hours per month (from 2014 onwards). There are no UCU scholarships available for Dutch students.

For non-EU/EEA citizens, a tuition fee of 8.900 euros applies.


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