Minderbroedersberg 6a, University building, Maastricht (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Or: Justice done to our two-year Master’s in Forensic Psychology
As a forensic psychologist-expert, I am obviously merely a witness during a criminal court procedure, having no stakes in the outcome. However, during the past four years, I gained some experience as a ‘stakeholder’. Fortunately, not in a criminal but in an administrative law case. On May 8, 2013, the Dutch Council of State came to a final ruling in the case of Maastricht University vs. Ministry of Education:
“The Administrative Law Division of the Council of State:
I. confirms the attacked decision;
II. destroys the decision of 20 July 2012 of the Secretary of Education, Culture and
III. revokes the decision of 21 July 2009 of the Minister of Education, Culture and Science, characteristic MO & S/BB/138553;
III. provides that the Minister of Education, Culture and Science includes the Master ‘Forensic Psychology ‘ in Appendix 1 of the Implementation Act WHW;
V. provides that this statement replaces the annulled decision.”
To understand the case, we have to go all the way back to 2006. In May of that year, the temporary parliamentary committee on the Dutch TBS-system presented her evaluation report with 17 recommendations: . Recommendation 15 pertained to higher education in forensic psychiatry and psychology:
“The Committee recommends that within the higher education system, professional courses are developed which qualify students for work in the forensic psychiatric system. “ (p. 125)
The parliamentary evaluation had shown that too many young and unqualified clinical psychologists were working in forensic psychiatric hospitals, resulting in high staff turnover, high absenteeism and inadequate decision making, resulting in critical incidents such as reoffending during furlough. Our Forensic Psychology section at Maastricht University took on the challenge to create an English language, 2-year Master’s program in Forensic Psychology, aiming to deliver the future scientist-practitioners for the forensic mental health field. In our view only a 2-year program could deliver specialized forensic psychologists. This view was shared by the accreditation panel of the Dutch-Flemish Accreditation Organization (NVAO) which advised a duration of two years (equivalent to 120 ECTS: European Credit Transfer System) for our program. Much to our surprise and dismay, the then Minister of Education, Ronald Plasterk, completely ignored the NVAO accreditation report, and decided in July 2009 that only the first year of our program would be funded. As a motivation for his decision, the Minister referred to an advisory report of the Levelt Committee (25 oktober 2006), a report which did not pertain to the specialization of forensic psychology. Frankly, I could not understand the Minister’s reasoning; it seemed like a legal trick to avoid having to pay for a good and highly necessary educational program. I was particularly disappointed because this Minister was a former professor himself. The implications of the Minister’s decision for Maastricht University (UM) were large: we would not get paid for the education provided during the second year and we would also have to pay the student-scholarships (Dutch: studiefinanciering) for students who are legally entitled to this. Thus, we entered the legal battle against the Ministry.
Despite the financial uncertainty UM decided to start with the Master’s program in September 2010. The Forensic Psychology Section had confidence in the quality of the program and 22 talented students were admitted. The program has been very successful since: it ended second place of all Master’s programs in psychology in the Keuzegids Hoger Onderwijs 2012 and obtained the quality label ‘Top rated programme’ in the Keuzegids Hoger Onderwijs 2013 . This Spring around 100 students from across the globe applied for the 24 places.
Back to the legal case. No surprises: we lost the first appeal at the Ministry level in 2010. Our next stop was the administrative court of Maastricht. On April 18, 2012, the latter court ruled the appeal was upheld and the Ministry was commissioned to formulate a new decision in accordance with the ruling. The Ministry took the same decision (no funding for the second year), but without any new supporting argumentation. In the meantime, the Ministry also appealed the Maastricht court ruling at the Council of State, the highest court of administrative law in The Netherlands. The Council was our last resort.
What did I learn from this case which caused me headaches and restless nights? It helped me understand what it feels like to be ‘part’ of a lawsuit in which I had a great investment, an experience that can be useful in expert witness work. I also learned that policymakers/civil servants at the level of the Ministry of Education show a shocking disinterest in the content of educational programs. During two of the court hearings, the people from the Ministry voiced the opinion that ‘the business world’ should pay for the second year. It seemed as if they hadn’t even taken the time to take note of the content of our Master’s program! It is rather evident that none of our graduates will end up in ‘the business world’. Before the courts, we would argue: “We do not educate students to become CEO of a peanut butter factory. We train people to work in forensic mental health, a sector that bears a large societal responsibility and is in great need of qualified forensic psychologists.” I also learned that government policy is short-lived and inconsistent, and therefore untrustworthy. The recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee of 2006, which were taken over by the then ruling cabinet, seemed to have already been ‘forgotten’ by the time we filed our application to the Ministry in 2009. Finally, I have become very suspicious of politicians claiming they support ‘excellence in Dutch higher education’. Maastricht University created this excellent program, which was almost destroyed by disinterested bureaucrats with too much power at their hands.
This blog is to bear witness to the wisdom of the Council of State. The real winners of this legal case are the past, present and future Master students in Forensic Psychology of Maastricht University. Thanks are due to all the people at UM who supported us in the fight for quality education in forensic psychology.