Going Dutch: An overview of Dutch HE

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to take part on a week long tour of Dutch universities. All in all, we visited nine universities across the country from The Hague to Groningen taking in Leiden, Utrecht, Maastricht and Middleburg amongst others.

The week was fairly intense with two campus visits a day, but we (the 14 other guidance counselors and myself) were all very well looked after as we were whisked from one city in the Netherlands to another. This was some of the very best CPD I have done. As the Netherlands is such a small country it is relatively easy to get a good overview of the different options for students who wish to study their degree in English in this country, in a short space of time. To get the same feeling within the US, for example, would probably require many years and many visits for a counselor living internationally.

A Different System and a Different Philosophy

The Dutch Higher Education system differs from the UK and runs on a binary system. There are Research Universities which are primarily concerned with research and teaching of more traditional theoretical subjects; their degrees are three years in length. There are also Universities of Applied Sciences. Their programs are four years in length and are concerned with practically orientated subjects e.g. Physiotherapy, Nursing, Education, Accounting and Finance etc.

Alongside this, the vast majority of courses in both types of institution do not select students based on academic grades. The Dutch government’s philosophy, as it was explained to me, is that any student who completes secondary education successfully should be given a chance to study at university. What this means in practice is that IB students need only pass the IB Diploma with 24 points and they will be admitted. For A level candidates this means passing three A Levels.

A major difference here, however, is that students are selected post-entry. The Dutch operate what is known as “binding study advice”. This means that any student who does not pass their first year is unable to continue with their course.

A relatively small number of courses are selective, however. In the past the Dutch government has specified quotas for certain courses and also selected students for those course centrally (this was termed “numerus fixus”). This year the government has moved away from doing the selection centrally and begun to allow universities to do their own selection.

An International Outlook

One of the first things to become really obvious when visiting campuses and meeting students was the diversity of the places we saw. Many of the English language taught programs were composed of up to 50% non-Dutch students and these non-native students didn’t appear to be coming from one single country of continent. Instead, on paper, there appears to be a real variety to the languages, experiences and cultures that a student can expect to meet and interact with on a Dutch campus. The official statistics we were quoted felt as if they matched the picture that was painted by the students we met and quizzed.

A Range of Options

There is a huge variation in the types of institutions on offer along with the types of courses on offer. Dutch universities are certainly not one size fits all. For such a small country there is an excellent range in the type and style of universities. University College Utrecht is built around the campus model, where all students live and study together for the full four years of study. Groningen and Maastricht offer a university life that is much more integrated into the life of the city that houses them – different faculties and university building spread out amongst the city.

For students looking to escape the big city environment, Leiden and UCR in Middleburg couldn’t be better placed. Both Leiden and Middleburg as towns have widely different vibes, yet both are small, picturesque and undeniably pretty but the courses on offer and living arrangements at the universities over the course of their degrees are different.

One thing that the Netherlands has specialised in, it seems, is the creation of liberal arts and sciences programs. These programs are selective (unlike most Dutch courses – see above) but not numerus fixus and run out of University Colleges, termed the “Honors Colleges” or “University Colleges”. Different University Colleges operate in different ways and they structure their courses differently, but they all allow some degree of flexibility to students who want to tailor make their own degree by studying a range of different modules and subjects. There is also one Natural Sciences program at Maastricht called the Maastricht Science Program; a good choice for students who would be opting for Natural Sciences in the UK.

Education at a price

The cost of studying in the Netherlands is extremely competitive. EU and EEA students can expect to pay at little as €2,004 for tuition fees (Liberal Arts programs are a little more at €4,000) while those students without such a passport will find courses costing anything between €6,000-€16,000. With a cheaper cost of living in general compared to the UK it makes a competitive alternative to studying in the UK.

Conclusion

Britain and North America have always been destinations of choice for international students. Not only do they boast some of the world’s highest ranked universities, but they offer degrees in English. In a globalised world the ability to communicate in English is highly prized skill the world over.

However, the Netherlands, either through choice or coincidence, has positioned itself extremely well to compete for international students and disrupt the UK, US and Canada’s market share.. The universities in the Netherlands are highly regarded and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them become more as time progresses. Typically these students are studying outside their home country. But, more than this, they offer undergraduate study in what is potentially a much more diverse student setting. Studying in English yes, but socialising in Dutch, and, with such variegated cohorts of students, potentially a mix of other languages as well. This on its own will certainly attract certain students. On top of this, the fees are much, much more competitive than either North America or UK and students don’t run the risk of graduating with tens of thousands of euros in debt as they surely do elsewhere. Finally, students know that so long as they are able to successfully finish high school then they are guaranteed a place, which takes the pressure off somewhat when you consider that UK universities will demand a specific point score with, perhaps, very specific conditions in individual subjects. All these factors combine to create a very attractive proposition. I think we can only expect Dutch universities to grow in their popularity.

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