News - September 19, 2019

Fewer first-years: a relief or a worry?

Albert Sikkema

For the first time in years, the number of Bachelor’s students in Wageningen has gone down. Are these lower recruitment figures a relief, as the rapid growth brought a lot of stress and work pressure with it? Or does WUR’s waning popularity give cause for concern?

text Albert Sikkema  illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

Ralf Hartemink
Food Programme Director (does not want his photo in Resource for privacy reasons)

‘I coordinate four degree programmes, one at Bachelor’s and three at Master’s level, which have attracted 100 fewer students this year altogether. We don’t see a problem with that. Food Technology is still the biggest programme at WUR, both at Bachelor’s and at Master’s level. The BSc in Food Technology recruited 45 fewer students, including fewer Dutch students, but we’ve got enough to meet the demand for graduates on the Dutch job market. The three MSc programmes have shrunk from 280 to 225 first-years, but that is mainly due to more stringent admission criteria for Chinese students, the postponement of Brexit and fewer scholarships in countries like Mexico and Indonesia. All in all, we are happy with the number of new students. The reasons for the drop are clear: due to demographic developments, fewer young Dutch are going to university. And also, the hype around nutrition has died down a bit. More young people are opting for climate-related degrees now.’

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Marjo Lexmond
Environmental Sciences programme director

‘I coordinate four programmes, which are growing. The number of first-years on the international Bachelor’s in Environmental Sciences has more than doubled in the past two years: we are now at 130 first-years. Not only because international students have started coming here, but also because the number of Dutch students went up in that period. It is obvious that there is a lot of interest in the subjects of environment and climate. I think perhaps we’ve got a few of the people who skipped school to demonstrate about the climate in the class now! And the MSc in Environmental Sciences, which was big already, has grown to a record number of 130 first-years. The MSc in Climate Studies has doubled to 55 first-years, and the MSc in Urban Environmental Management has grown by 30 per cent to 60. We are pleased that they find their way to us. Luckily, we saw the growth of the BSc coming in the spring, and hopefully the teachers could prepare for it in good time.’

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Maria Koelen
Professor of Health and Society

‘There is concern about first-year recruitment in our group. Recruitment for the BSc in Health and Society has gone down by 28 per cent, to 40-plus first-years. We don’t quite understand why that is. Our programme gets high ratings. I have heard that fewer Dutch high school graduates are going to university. Also, Wageningen has changed the approach to the open days, with a smaller role for students. I think that affects recruitment, because high school students and their parents always enjoy talking to students at open days very much. So we are certainly taking note of the falling numbers. We wonder whether it is a one-off incident or a trend.’


Lieke van Bokhoven

Marketing and Publicity officer at WUR

‘WUR as a whole has pursued a reactive policy towards student recruitment in recent years, because most of the degree programmes already had such big intakes. Now we need to switch from that reactive policy to a proactive one. Dutch students no longer just turn up at our door. That is related to the aging population: there are fewer and fewer young people so we’ve got to work harder to keep up student numbers. We are working hard with several degree programmes to see how we can attract more students to them. But some of the bigger programmes are pleased about the drop. In those cases we need to look at how we can prevent a further drop, because we want to maintain our current strong position. And recruitment at Master’s level has gone up. We will try to maintain that upward curve.’

We need to recruit more proactively instead of reactively

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Bart Pierik
Spokesperson for the Dutch Universities Association (VSNU)

‘At the VSNU we base our calculations on the ministry of Education, Culture and Science’s 2018 estimate, which indicates that the number of first-year university students will go on growing for the next five years. There are three reasons for that. Firstly, there are slightly more high school students who might go to university; secondly, a growing number of students are transferring from applied science universities into academic university programmes; and thirdly, the number of foreign students from the EU is growing. The ‘green’ sector, which is Wageningen really, will go on growing in the coming years, according to the ministry. Maybe not as much as other sectors, but according to this estimate, recruitment in Wageningen will only go down in nine years’ time. I should add that the ministry’s estimates haven’t been right for years. In the past, the ministry underestimated the growth, which is why it has adjusted its previous estimate.’

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Arnold Bregt
Dean of Education

‘We have grown a lot in recent years, of course. The fact that that is now levelling out or even falling off a bit in some programmes is not a problem. I was at a meeting of the vice-deans of all science faculties in the Netherlands recently. They are all seeing the same development. There is no need for us to worry unduly about this development. There is no numbers crisis, even in the smaller programmes that shrank this year. We always look at the average over three years, so a drop in recruitment in a single year doesn’t have immediate consequences. In the near future we are going to see which degree programmes need us to invest more energy in recruitment and selection.’