Sometimes it is clear that a former student will never be able to repay his student loans. Then DUO (the Education Executive Agency) should be able to cancel the debt, writes Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf to the Senate and House of Representatives.
Large debts, no income, psychological problems... In a letter about the ‘human dimension’ and student loans, Minister Dijkgraaf writes that the Education Executive Service already often applies customization when citizens are in trouble.
Yet things still sometimes go wrong and citizens are disproportionately affected. Dijkgraaf feels ‘that we still have steps to take.’ One of his intentions: he wants to review the ‘forgiveness’ policy.
At present, DUO can only cancel a debt if someone is in a coma, terminally ill, or in a hopeless situation with a psychiatric disorder. But some students fall between the cracks.
On the spectrum
Dijkgraaf gives the example of ‘Manuel,’ a former student with a disorder on the autistic spectrum. He lives abroad and has been declared disabled, but every year he must explain to DUO that he has no income, causing stress and bureaucratic hassle.
Canceling the debt doesn't seem to be possible. Dijkgraaf therefore wants to see if he can relax the rules. It should be possible to make an exception in such cases, he believes.
Other former students also sometimes get into trouble with repayment. They may then have to deal with the courts. Since 2018, DUO has been trying to prevent that from happening with the ‘person-centered collection’ approach, Dijkgraaf says. With targeted letters and personal contact, employees try to come to a customized repayment arrangement, he says.
But he still wants to improve ‘service delivery. This could involve how DUO gets in touch with (former) students, but also assess whether the design of the processes is in line with the ability of (former) students to do things.’ In other words, is the communication clear and are the rules not overly complicated?
Amending the law
Some problems require Dijkgraaf, or one of his colleagues in the cabinet, to amend the law. For example, what is meant by ‘test income?’ The definition is rather rigid now, sometimes requiring former students to pay off high amounts of money that they don't actually have.
Dijkgraaf gives the example of ‘Moniek,’ who was struggling with her benefits, spousal support, and non-allocated allowances. On paper, she had enough income to pay off €300 a month, while in practice she only had as much money as someone in debt restructuring.
‘Everyone is left with a nasty feeling,’ Dijkgraaf writes. ‘Something must be done here, but it's not allowed by law.’ Only after a change in the law was DUO able to reduce the repayment to €70 a month.
Case by case
Another change in the law will soon come into effect that will expand the application of the ‘hardship clause. By the way, this does not mean that DUO will deviate from the law on a large scale,’ the minister assures. ‘That will only happen if a decision leads to disproportionate consequences and there are no other solutions. DUO will look at this on a case-by-case basis and justify why an exception will or will not be made.’
Still, not everything is solved, Dijkgraaf realizes. He ends his letter on a cautionary note: ‘Because it is also complicated to grant customization and deviate from rules, sometimes mistakes will be made.’