Tensions in Dutch higher education are growing with the blurring of distinctions between universities and colleges for higher vocational training, or Hogeschulen, following each's steady expansion into the other's territory, allegedly to meet demand.
Many Hogeschulen have discovered a loophole in higher education law and are organising masters courses validated by institutions abroad.
The Hogeschulen traditionally train students to first-degree level while universities provide anything beyond. Graduates of the first phase of university study are granted the legally protected title of doctorandus (Drs), which can arguably be compared to a masters degree.
But titles such as MSc, MA, and so on, are not protected by Dutch law and anyone who wishes to put them after their name can do. Some of the more enterprising Hogeschulen have therefore struck deals for masters validation with their British counterparts in mainly universities.
For British universities, it means a low-input source of revenue, while Dutch graduates gain another respectable title to add on their cv. The market is eager and since 1992 some 70 courses have sprung up in Hogeschulen.
Some 25 foreign institutions are now profiting from the demand.
Paul Minnee, director of international relations at the Hogeschool Holland in Amsterdam, says: "Many students want to continue their training at master's level after graduation, and some universities abroad seemed keener to recognise our exit level than most Dutch universities. "From recognition of this exit level, co-operation developed towards collaborative composition of courses. This in turn eventually led to validation and recognition of our own entirely Dutch courses, rewarded - at a price - with a masters from a British university."
The price is negotiable. An average English degree from a new university sells for about Pounds 500 excluding costs and expenses of visitation committees recruited for validating the programme.
Not all higher education is equally happy with these developments. The universities say the Hogeschulen are fishing in their waters. Frans van Vught, director of the centre for higher education policy studies at the University of Twente, thinks it is opportunism. "Understandable opportunism though. It is just a way to add to the attraction of their programmes in pursuit of academic prestige and will only lead to certificate inflation."
Jo Ritzen, Dutch education minister, thinks it is a shame that high-quality Dutch institutions feel a need to go abroad for recognition of their products.
To dampen such criticism the colleges have backed the formation of a trans-institutional validation council to work towards validation of their courses at a national level. The British Higher Education Quality Council supports the move and is willing to work side by side towards an international standard for master degrees.
The hope is that Mr Ritzen will eventually recognise the council and it will become the hallmark of a quality Dutch masters programme.