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Social Science Matters: Confidence in the future?

After a long period of formation, the Rutte III cabinet presented itself on 26 October 2017. The coalition agreement on which ministers will build is called ‘Vertrouwen in de toekomst’ ('Confidence in the future'). But what impact will this new cabinet have on our future? We asked our researchers in the fields of anthropology, education and child studies, political science, and psychology for their views. How do they read the agreements made between the parties involved? Do they share the coalition's 'confidence in the future'?

‘A cabinet of managers’

— Ruud Koole, Professor of Political Science

The recent coalition agreement is the result of laborious formation negotiations involving four parties.  All four parties—the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), the Christian Democrats (CDA), D66, and the Christian Union—see some of their wishes upheld, but the new government lacks a coherent, directional vision of where the Netherlands is going. The fruits of all this negotiation are certainly not all bad (limiting the profit distribution of health insurance providers, providing sheltered accommodation for people with psychological problems, experimenting with legal cannabis cultivation – I’m all in favour of these kinds of things), but these are all small, cautious steps; I don’t see the Rutte III government coming up with any real breakthroughs.

It seems set to be a cabinet of managers. Oops, little bit of a problem here… but no worries, we’ll soon have that sorted out. But when it comes to the major issues of our day, the silence is deafening. I had hoped for a bit more ambition to address issues such as environmental protection, the refugee crisis, inequalities in political participation according to level of education, and the great uncertainties many people currently face in the labour market.  Prime minister Rutte passes on the bigger issues, mindful of the adage of the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt: ‘If you want vision, go to an optician.' 

Of course constitutional reform is all good stuff for political scientists. Especially if you lecture in Dutch politics and have the good fortune to be part of the referendum committee and the state commission on the parliamentary system. Rutte III wants to put shelve referendums… after just one edition, which a few people viewed as a failure—that strikes me as a pity and not a sensible move. Okay, some people suggest there 'may be some prospect' of elected mayors. And the state commission is being instructed 'to take a look at' the electoral system and constitutional review. But it never really gets concrete… let alone innovative.

My expectation is that this coalition agreement will run out of steam after about a year or eighteen months: unforeseeable circumstances may put the unity in the group severely to the test. Given that it relies on the tiniest possible majority, the coalition effectively has 76 veto players on board, so there are challenging times ahead for this cabinet.

‘Scientific literacy for confidence in the future’

— Maartje Raijmakers, Associate Professor Education and Child Studies

Teaching in science and technology (S&T) has been on the agenda of both the Dutch government and the European Commission for years. When the Technology Pact between the Dutch government, leading sectors of industry, and educational institutions was first signed in 2013, for instance, it was agreed that by 2020 all primary schools would make structural provision for science and technology teaching.

In the first instance, the primary objective was to pave the way for a sufficient number of students to choose technology subjects at secondary level and in higher education. But at the current time, the aim of S&T teaching at the European level is more to ensure that the average citizen should be technologically and scientifically literate. The new coalition agreement also addresses some of these objectives: '[...] there will be greater attention for digital literacy and practical skills. The core objectives for technology, citizenship, and sexual diversity will also be tightened up.'

But where does this leave attention for 'scientific literacy' in education, the 'S' of S&T? I did find one possibly relevant measure in the coalition agreement: a stimulus for academic training for primary school teachers (they are the only students who will be eligible for reduced fees for two years). Expectations are high about the impact our university-trained teachers will have on primary school education. They are ideally fitted to really introduce academic, critical thinking into primary schools.

Experience shows us that this is no easy task (see the report Peil.Natuur en Techniek 2015-2016, a survey research of the Dutch primary school S & T education). As those responsible for a university degree course, we have the important task of strengthening future teachers by providing them with research-based ideas for effective S&T teaching. Scientific literacy is vital for Confidence in the Future.

‘A persistent taboo about men working part-time’

— Gert-Jan Lelieveld, Assistant Professor Social and Organisational Psychologie

Great news that paternity leave is getting a boost. We can see this as a first step towards changing the image of the working man. Under the new coalition agreement, paternity leave increases from two days to five days. In addition, it is possible to take a further five weeks’ supplementary leave. That’s good news for fathers, mothers, and children in the Netherlands. Surveys have shown that 60% of fathers would like to spend more time with their children.

Often this responsibility still lies with the woman of the family. Women have a right to 16 weeks’ paid leave, whereas until now men have only had two days. That’s a problem, especially given that the period immediately after the child is born has been shown to be highly influential for the distribution of work and care tasks in the period that follows. This could be part of the reason for the persisting unequal opportunities in the labour market.

So there can be no doubt that a longer period of paid leave is a positive development for both fathers and mothers, but it remains to be seen how many men will actually take up this opportunity. In only one in six couples in the Netherlands do the male and the female partner work an equal number of hours. There’s no arguing with the figures, but the reason is not necessarily that fathers do not wish to work less.

In our society there’s still a taboo about men working part-time. If men (with or without children) decide to work less, they are often seen as less motivated and driven. Men often think they know what the people around them (including their employers) think about this, because the image of the man as breadwinner is still the first thing to come to mind. This image of the working man needs to change. It would be good if the present cabinet, but even more so employees themselves, could work more on changing this image in the future.

‘Friction "free market" and healthcare prompts questions about solidarity’

Nikkie Buskermolen, PhD Candidate Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology

  • I am carrying out the research for my PhD as part of the ERC Consolidator project Moralising Misfortune headed by Erik Bähre. My research concerns the morality of health insurance. What moral questions and dilemmas do insurance policies prompt in insurance companies, clients, and professionals? How do people deal with these moral dilemmas? So I too perused the new coalition agreement carefully:
  • Both the ‘free market’ and solidarity feature in the coalition agreement under the heading ‘healthcare’, in a discussion about offering low-budget policies. According to the coalition agreement, providing low-budget policies would fulfil the wishes of policy-holders; at the same time, however, these policies might detract from the solidarity principle. This is because if you have a low-budget policy, you have a very limited choice of healthcare providers. This makes the policy cheaper. The principle of insurance is that the contribution of the many covers the damage of the few. There are two dilemmas here: First, low-budget policies are not available to everyone (e.g., people suffering from chronic conditions who want to go to a hospital that does not have a contract with the health insurance company). Second, there is the problem that if those people who do not make much use of healthcare are increasingly less willing to pay, this raises the question of who the 'many' are that the system is built on.
  • At the present time there is a prohibition on profit distribution by the health insurance companies. In the Lower House there is a widely shared objection to the distribution of profits, and the new cabinet also wishes to ensure that money intended for healthcare is indeed used for healthcare. The profits must benefit healthcare or the people insured. At the end of the vote about this prohibition in January 2017, the Dutch Labour Party stated that 'healthcare calls for behaviour other than strict market behaviour', but what is strict market behaviour? 
  • On the day the coalition agreement was presented, the Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport, Edith Schippers, had to address the Lower House to justify her decision not to cover the costs of a medication for people with cystic fibrosis. The dilemma caused her 'sleepless nights' (1.36), but she initianally refused to reimburse what she viewed as the exorbitant amount of 170,000 euro per patient per year. 'Because', she argued, 'if we decide to reimburse this medication, what other healthcare will this be at the expense of?'.
  • This coalition agreement, presented in bullet-point style, leaves little room for dilemmas. Maybe this is a way for the new cabinet to suggest: no doubts, friction, or dilemmas for us; we have confidence in the future.   

Social Science Matters – a soapbox for social scientists

Social Science Matters is an online variant on London’s famous Speakers’ Corner – a platform for the researchers in the various disciplines in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences to react to the news. This soapbox gives the social scientists of the faculty the opportunity to voice their opinions on current affairs from the point of view of their own areas of expertise.

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