Organisation - April 7, 2016

Selecting university students

Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau,Rob Ramaker

Low grades or not very motivated? In that case more and more Dutch degree programmes are allowed to reject you. Selection by universities is no longer taboo, even for their ‘own’ students wanting to proceed to a Master’s. Discriminatory, say critics, who prefer a lottery system.

Illustration Henk van Ruitenbeek

Meike Vernooy finished High School in 1996 with a grade average of 9.6, but she wasn’t allowed to embark on the degree in medicine she was aiming at. She lost out in the lottery for places at medical school three times: a clear illustration of the disadvantages of the lottery system used in the Netherlands. The case was the subject of discussion countrywide, and in its wake came new selection options based on motivation and grades.

Since then far more selection procedures have been adopted, something that was pretty much taboo in the Netherlands before then. From 1999 degree programmes with an enrolment limit were allowed to select half their students, and from 2011 they were allowed to select them all. In the subsequent two years the number of prospective students going through selection procedures increased to 30 percent. Meanwhile, the lottery system was losing popularity: now it seems to be lotteries that are taboo, and from 2017, as education minister Bussemaker reiterated in parliament recently, they will be banned.

A certain amount of selection takes places in Wageningen too these days. In 2014, the Nutrition and Health programme introduced an enrolment cap and a selection procedure. High school students are ranked according to their grades for relevant subjects such as chemistry and biology, and they are also tested on their motivation and knowledge. All students scoring 8 or above are automatically admitted. Two other programmes –

Biotechnology and Molecular Life Sciences – are considering bringing in an admissions ceiling along similar lines.


Education managers, politicians and students themselves are starting to get used to the idea of selection. This represents quite a cultural shift, says historian of education Pieter Slaman. ‘The case for the lottery system is an example of “collective” thinking, according to which it is sad if someone with a grade average of 7 doesn’t get a chance. But nowadays we think it’s even sadder if an excellent student misses out in the lottery. That is thinking along “individual” lines.

And not everyone embraces the change with enthusiasm. ‘I am very worried about the trend towards selection,’ says D66 MP Paul van Meenen. He feels that selection procedures are not transparent, so that a student cannot ascertain whether his or her rejection was justified. The Wageningen Student Council too doubts the feasibility of a fair selection procedure. ‘We have not yet found a scientifically-based foolproof assessment method,’ says Marieke Kil of VeSte student party. The predictive value of examination grades has its limits. And motivation tests are of doubtful reliability.

If you select on the basis of interviews you run the risk of cultural selection

Copycat effect

For Master’s degree programmes too, there is more and more scope for selection of students in the Netherlands. The tradition by which students had the automatic right to proceed from their Bachelor’s to a related Master’s was abandoned in 2014. The aim of this was to motivate students to give careful thought to their choice of Master’s programme. Student organizations are not impressed by this and student parties from all around the country wrote to minister Bussemaker about it in January. The Wageningen Student Council was among the signatories. The student body sees the measure as a threat to the accessibility of higher education, given that it remains the norm in the Netherlands for students to pursue their studies to Master’s level, with only a tiny minority getting jobs straight after their Bachelor’s.

The student organizations are afraid of a copycat effect: once one university goes down this route, the others will follow. ‘To put it crudely, universities are afraid of ending up as the sink,’ says Kil. Wageningen is in a special position in this respect, says Kil. Many Wageningen programmes are so unique that there is no competition. But that also creates a unique responsibility to make the Master’s programmes accessible, especially to Wageningen’s own Bachelor’s graduates.

Wageningen University has no firm plans for more stringent selection for its Master’s programmes. For the present only students from other institutions or abroad are assessed on the relevance of their first degree, and the level of their English. Wageningen’s ‘own’ students can automatically proceed to a Master’s, although the education institute, the OWI, is following the national discussion with interest.


Meanwhile, the first warnings are being heard. Selection turns out not to be a neutral process. Immigrants and male students hesitate to apply for selective degree programmes, noted the education inspectorate at the end of last year. This has led parliamentarian Van Meenen (D66) to campaign in favour of the familiar old lottery system. ‘I do see the down sides of lotteries but whatever you say about it, it is totally fair and unbiased.’ He has even come up with a rhyming Dutch slogan (‘Niet kloten maar loten’) with the message: stop messing about, just draw lots. He is not getting much support in the House so far, but the Education inspectorate and the ministry of Education are looking into the possible undesirable effects of selection.

Education expert Slaman predicts that a more and more groups of young people are going to end up in disadvantaged positions in future. ‘Take immigrant populations, for instance. If you select on the basis of interviews and personal contact, you always run the risk of cultural selection.’

Things turned out well in the end for star pupil Meike Vernooy. In 1999, a regulation for ‘special cases’ enabled her to start medical school after all. She now works as a radiologist at the Erasmus Medical Centre.

University: privilege of the elite

For many years there was no need to select students in the Netherlands. Until the 1960s the number of students applying to universities was limited. ‘The Netherlands was a class society and a university degree was seen as rounding off the education that prepared you for membership of the upper classes,’ says education historian Pieter Slaman. ‘So in the nineteenth century, one of the things you learned as a student was horsemanship.’ There was no question of working class children applying because university was beyond their means. With the democratization of higher education, student numbers rose rapidly in the 1960s and 70s. The lottery system was introduced for medical school in 1974, in order to control the rising numbers. So as not to disadvantage ‘late bloomers’, grades were not taken into consideration. Only from the 1990s were degree programmes gradually allowed to select on grades, talent and motivation.