Dutch consider breaking university selection ‘taboo’

The country’s increasingly similar universities also need to be forced to specialise, argues government advisory body

June 26, 2019
Source: Getty

The Netherlands is mulling bringing in widespread student selection, breaking a cultural “taboo” and forcing universities to choose more distinct missions, amid fears that they have grown too similar.

If enacted, the controversial changes to admissions would mirror reforms introduced last year in France, where the government has given universities greater power to select their students in order to reduce failure rates.

The proposals have been put forward by the Advisory Council for Science, Technology and Innovation (AWTI), which advises the Dutch government and parliament, and have gained widespread media attention in the Netherlands, with some newspapers reporting on concerns that more selection could make higher education less accessible.

Selection is “apparently a taboo” in the Netherlands, explained Uri Rosenthal, the chairman of the AWTI, who is a political scientist and former foreign minister for the ruling People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. It runs against a “very deep cultural idea” that “if you have the right [high school] diploma, you should be able to study where you like”, he said.

Dutch universities are already allowed to select for master’s and for some smaller, intensive bachelor’s programmes, he explained. But the AWTI report wants to broaden selection across all bachelor’s courses.

Increased selection can be used to “manage” student numbers in subjects for which the labour market has little demand, making higher education more “efficient”, says Shaking Up the System: Towards a Future-proof Higher Education and Research System.

More freedom to select students would be “very welcome”, a spokesman for the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) said, because “it increases the autonomy of universities and can help to improve study success”.

“However, some universities do not want to select students, and this is also fine; the AWTI does not propose a duty to select,” he explained.

Dutch universities have also become too similar, the report warns.

“What has happened over the past 10 to 15 years is that all the universities have broadened,” explained Sjoukje Heimovaara, a member of the AWTI and chief executive of Royal Van Zanten, a horticultural firm.

Even technical universities had begun offering courses such as business and psychology because funding was based on the proportion of students institutions enrol, forcing them to compete against each other for numbers, she said.

Some courses were now being offered at 10 campuses when five was sufficient, while research subject specialisation at universities had weakened, she warned.

Dutch universities do already make institutional plans, but these are often “vague” and lacking in hard targets, she said.

Instead, the AWTI wants universities to be assessed to see whether they are living up to new, more specialised missions, with between 5 per cent and 30 per cent of their funding on the line if they fail.

They need to set out a “clear profile” in “binding” institutional plans, it recommends, with universities forced to choose whether they want to pursue pure research, dissemination or teaching, according to the report.

Universities object to more regulation, the VSNU spokesman said, arguing that they are already heavily regulated.

The AWTI’s recommendations have now been passed to the minister of education, culture and science, Ingrid van Engelshoven. Whether they are accepted now depends on the reaction of the minister and parliament, said Dr Rosenthal.


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Reader's comments (2)

Best left alone. Universities are also ‘too similar’ in neo-liberal countries where they slavishly copy each other to try to gain competitive advantage.
Many students in the Netherlands live with their parents through university. Limiting course and degree options at their local university will limit the academic opportunity afforded to students.