World insight: the Dutch definition of 'a university'

The Dutch binary system, with its distinction between research-oriented and professional higher education, is a good thing, says Martin Paul.

June 19, 2016
'One way' signs pointing in two directions

The strong international reputation of the Dutch higher education sector is built on its binary system, allowing for differentiation of research agendas and facilitating optimal and differentiated access of students to higher education.

In the Netherlands we cherish the tradition of a binary system, with 14 research universities and 37 universities of applied sciences. Outside of the Netherlands, some people have called for Dutch universities of applied sciences to simply be called universities. This discussion is often held with reference to the decision in the UK in 1992 to elevate polytechnics to university status, creating a homogeneous higher education sector. 

In this context it is sometimes stated quite categorically that research universities should train students for academia and that the universities of applied sciences should train students for the employment market.

In my view, this is an unnecessary oversimplification. Research universities also train students for the employment market, albeit for different positions. If you want to practise as a lawyer, then you have to go to a research university in the Netherlands. If you want to be a physician, then you have to go to a research university.

If you want to be a nurse, then in most cases you will attend a university of applied sciences. And if you want to do a technical study then you can either go to a technical research university or to a technical university of applied sciences, but you will be trained for different professional levels. In a nutshell, it is not that black and white at all. 

On Maastricht University’s website, we have summarised our view of the differences between research universities and universities of applied sciences. In short, research universities consider the “why”, and universities of applied sciences teach students the “how”.

Research universities are using an extensive research environment for the educational process – at Maastricht University, as an example, in the context of problem-based learning. The teaching carried out at universities of applied sciences is more market-oriented, but they do practice-oriented research as well. The Dutch higher education sector, therefore, covers the entire spectrum, with the aim of offering the best place for each student. 

The binary system also feeds back to secondary schools, as the admission criteria are also different. In the Netherlands, unlike in the US for example, we have different high schools catering to different student populations. You may only go to a research university if you have obtained the highest category of high school diploma, while other diplomas facilitate access to universities of applied sciences. 

Why am I such a proponent of the binary system? I think that it is partly due to my German background.

The German linguist, philosopher and educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt introduced the term Bildung. According to Von Humboldt, Bildung means that people not only acquire general knowledge but also develop the capacity to make moral judgements and think critically. According to von Humboldt, there was a need for a university where people could do research independently and in academic freedom, and where lessons would be given with scientific training as the main purpose. Because such a university did not yet exist, he established one himself in 1810: the Humboldt University of Berlin.

Von Humboldt did of course realise that not everybody could go to a research university. He therefore tackled the entire spectrum of education. He standardised the German education system, introduced state exams and established a government ministry that monitored whether school textbooks satisfied the requirements. 

Back to the current situation in the Netherlands. My main argument – a bit exaggerated – is that not everybody needs to be a professor. That is also what von Humboldt thought, although he meant it in an exclusive sense: as far as he was concerned, only the elite needed to go to a university.

I do not agree with him in that respect. Universities must maintain their high academic standards while being accessible to everybody who makes the grade. 

But this does not mean that universities of applied sciences are second-rate. On the contrary, they make a significant contribution to the range of educational programmes available in the Netherlands. And they are of a high quality. Instead of focusing on differences, I believe that good collaboration between research universities and universities of applied sciences is key to creating a landscape where students can find their place.

In our binary system we must ensure good transfer opportunities. Somebody who first wants to focus on a profession, and so initially goes to a university of applied sciences, must be able to transfer to a research university easily, and vice versa. The concept of associations between research universities and universities of applied sciences, as has been implemented in the Flemish part of Belgium, may also be a good approach for our country to facilitate this. 

All things considered, I believe that the name given to higher education institutions is a side issue. My main concerns are the content of the study programmes, the broad range of programmes available, the Bildung, and making higher education accessible to everybody.

And in the Netherlands we are fortunate to have both research universities and universities of applied sciences to achieve this. 

Martin Paul is president of Maastricht University.

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