One for all and all for uni

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

There are certain bizarre-but-endearing things about the Netherlands that everyone knows about. Clogs, for example. But what I only learned when I moved here was that there are no – or at least, few – selection criteria for university admission. I can just picture the reaction back home: “But how do they keep the dumbasses out?”

The short answer, of course, is that they’ve already been filtered out. If you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed, you’ll have been relegated from a young age to a lower school stream, with little chance to gain direct university admission.

But German secondary schools do this as well, and they still have university admission criteria. As in other countries, if you want to study medicine or law, you’d better have been a boffin at school. In contrast, degree programmes in the Netherlands that are over-subscribed choose students by way of a lottery. This makes us foreigners nervous, because we tend to prefer our medical students nerdy, rather than mediocre with a lucky break

But the Dutch have an answer to this, too. Once you get admitted to a programme, you still need to pass it. Fail too many courses and you’re out. This is an admirable principle, because after all, school exams are just not everyone’s cup of tea, and some people are naturally late bloomers anyway. So to give every student an equal shot, Dutch legislation prohibits selection criteria.

Despite the government ban, however, universities seem to be doing all they can to introduce selection criteria through loopholes in the law, such as in special setups like university colleges and ‘selective’ master’s programmes. So why is UM so keen on selection criteria all of a sudden? For one thing, programmes that look ‘exclusive’ attract students. And high dropout rates are bad for our image, while high completion rates are, naturally, good.

Now, it’s not just about finishing the programme, but finishing it on time. Here, at least, the legislators and universities agree: faffing around for years at university then finally sticking a toe in the workforce in your mid- to late 20s isn’t doing much for the economy in the face of the ageing population. Hence the government’s new regulation on langstudeerders. Starting September 2012, those who spend more than one year extra on their degree will be hit with an extra €3000 in tuition fees.

This stricter enforcement of time limits and gradual move towards selection criteria are another step towards a ‘lean and mean’ university machine. They’ll make things more economical, no doubt. But somehow, and sadly, less ‘Dutch’, as well.


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