Star student challenges lottery

July 19, 1996

Seventeen-year-old Meike Vernooy's determination to become a doctor has led to confrontations between the ministry of education and the medical faculties in the Netherlands over the effectiveness of the selection procedure.

Meike has wanted to be a doctor ever since she could remember and in her own time has been working in the research laboratories of the medical faculty of Erasmus University, Rotterdam. This year her teachers predict a 9.6 pass out of 10 in her gymnasium diploma which she has taken a year early. Academically and personally she is equipped to make an excellent doctor.

The university, impressed by her research work, made no bones about the fact it wanted her and guaranteed her a place, regardless of the results of the government's entrance procedure, which is based on a computerised lottery.

Meike's preferential treatment highlighted the limitation of an entrance system which relies mainly on the vagaries of chance and personal school exam results. There are 29 subjects taught at Dutch universities and schools for higher professional education and they are heavily oversubscribed.

There are 1,750 places in six medical schools available each year with an average of 6,000 applicants. Erasmus University was not willing to risk the loss of an outstanding student and offered her a place in advance of the lottery - due to take place later this month.

Jo Ritzen, the minister of education, immediately questioned the legitimacy of the university's offer and, according to a ministry spokesman, "was looking into ways of stopping this kind of precedent". Faced with the prospect of legal action, Erasmus dropped its offer to Meike, who has since been offered places by medical colleges in neighbouring countries, including Germany and Belgium.

The move has come as a disappointment to a newly formed group of parents called Lottery Losers, whose children, they claim, are casualties of the lottery system. Meike has been awarded a lottery number, 5,175, and according to Harald Wouters of Information Management Group, the lottery operator, she stands "a very slim chance with such a high number".

The selection is based on exam results and the numbers are allocated at random by a computer. "In percentage terms, chances in category A which contains students with exam results of 8.5 and higher, are three times more likely to be selected compared to those students in the lowest category F," Mr Wouters explained.

"But if the allocated number is high, as with Meike, the chance is relatively big that there are enough students with a lower lottery number to fill up the available places in the categories. The system is devised to get people in, not keep them out, and disappointed students can apply again next year."

Frank Munnichs of Erasmus University said: "It's a stupid system. Generally speaking it benefits average quality students rather than bright ones. Also it doesn't take into account other qualities that make a good doctor like good social skills and caring."

A special ministerial commission has been set up to look at ways in which the system can be improved and whether or not qualifications such as motivation and personal ability can play a role in the selection process.

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