Lessons from the Netherlands and UK – why it’s important to look outwards

Friday 3 February 2023, Higher education

by Haleema Masud, Policy Adviser, UCAS & Dr Sebastiaan Steenman, Associate Professor, Utrecht University

Lessons from the Netherlands and UK – why it’s important to look outwards

Haleema Masud, Policy Adviser, UCAS & Dr Sebastiaan Steenman, Associate Professor, Utrecht University

Even though the Netherlands and United Kingdom can be considered close neighbouring countries, separated only by 84 miles of sea, the respective higher education (HE) systems are remarkably different. Ongoing research on the feasibility of a Dutch joint admissions service, a ‘UCAS for the Netherlands’ gave us the opportunity to reflect on the commonalities and differences in the higher education systems of the two countries.  

Many of the challenges are the same

The skills gap is an ongoing challenge for both the UK and the Netherlands – in both cases, evidence suggests there is an insufficient supply of the skills required by employers. T Levels were introduced in the UK recently with the aim to meet the needs of industry and to prepare students for entry into skilled employment. This year, the first cohort of T Levels received their results with over 400 (80%) of those applying through UCAS accepted onto a course. These courses are somewhat similar to certain tracks in the Dutch further vocational education (known as MBO). There are lessons that both the countries can learn from one another about vocational education pathways, as these routes mature and grow in importance.

Another challenge we have in common is student accommodation. Student numbers have been on the rise, both domestic and international. UCAS predicts that demand for UK HE could go up to a million by 2026. Therefore, the severity of this challenge may increase. While this is relatively new for the UK, Netherlands has been tackling this issue for a while now and has taken steps to overcome it through expanding supply and affordability, and anticipating demand in busy periods and municipalities.

In both systems, much of the discussion focuses on the fairness of admission and equal opportunities. Due to differences in the education system and in legal options, solutions that have been explored differ quite a lot. UK institutions commonly take a contextualised approach to admission decisions, with UCAS providing them with a range of information on a student’s background (school attended, where they live etc.) alongside their secondary school grades – with data science advancing this further through more sophisticated measures of disadvantage, such as the Multiple Equalities Measure. In the Dutch context, the discussion so far has focused on fairness of the admissions instruments that are used. Many instruments other than grades are used, and some courses don’t use grades at all. The link between fairness and the use of different instruments seems to be specific to the Netherlands, possibly due to the fact that the way students are selected is not yet settled within the system.

How are the two systems different?

One of the main differences is the pathways to HE and training. The vast majority applications for UK undergraduate HE studies are made through UCAS. Choice is at the heart of the system – 35,000 courses are listed on ucas.com with applicants able to apply to up to five choices across a range of subjects and disciplines. In 2022, over 400,000 applicants applied for more than one subject, and 73,000 applied for at least four different subjects.

In the Netherlands, pathways to HE and training are defined more clearly from secondary school. Students can go to for VMBO (preparatory vocational school), HAVO (senior general education school), or VWO (pre-university education). This choice determines the pathways beyond secondary school. These qualifications then determine the type of HE institutions applicants can apply to: universities of applied sciences, (hogescholen; HBO), open to graduates of HAVO, VWO, and MBO, and research universities (universiteiten; WO) open only to VWO-graduates and HBO graduates. Much of the selection for HE therefore takes place earlier in the education system, rather than at the point of application to university. 

The other striking difference between our approach is the emphasis placed on continuation data as a quality outcome. Continuation rates in the UK are given significant importance as an indication of success – access is seen as the first step of the journey. For example, English universities and colleges are regulated to meet a minimum threshold for continuation and completion rates under the B3 condition set by the regulator, the Office for Students (OfS)1 . Whereas in the Netherlands, students are given more flexibility in trialling their provider and course choice(s) and can drop out in the first three months of study, with the potential to receive a full refund of tuition fees. 

The UK system places more emphasis on information advice and guidance for students in earlier years. UCAS’ report on school leavers highlighted how aspirations are shaped early. Whereas for the Netherlands, the onus lies more on students to decide a course best suited for them. There are, however, increasing initiatives to help students make the choice that is right for them in the first place. Most universities offer mandatory ‘matching’ days for all new students before the course starts.

Why maintaining a global outlook has never been so important

While the HE and training system in the two countries is significantly different, they share the desire to provide equality of opportunity for students to access and experience education in a fulfilling manner. There is no perfect system. However, our conversation highlighted that UCAS provides a service which eases the application journey for young people at what is undeniably a high-stakes and high-stress time. That is the value of a centralised admissions process, one that bridges the gap between different education systems, regulatory restrictions, university and college requirements, and, most critically, is centred on the needs of the students themselves.

This is even more so the case for International students, who are navigating all of this unfamiliar territory through alien systems and in a language potentially different to their native tongue. Providing a student-centric service requires constant innovation. Myriad by UCAS serves as an example of such innovation, delivering an intuitive in-app experience designed to support international postgraduate applicants navigate their journey to UK HE, whilst driving up the quality and diversification of international admissions. 

Another point of learning from this meeting was the value and importance of these comparative conversations with a global lens. UCAS will be hosting the International Association of Admissions Organisations conference in February 2023, bringing together UCAS style shared and centralised admissions services from across the globe in one room with the theme ‘shared challenges, shared opportunities’. The Covid pandemic taught us about the interconnectivity of the world we live in, and no matter what issue we believe we're facing in isolation, we are most certainly not alone. We hope to continue to steer these conversations further and keep learning from best practices from across the globe.

1 Condition B3 of the OfS regulatory framework requires that: ‘The provider must deliver successful outcomes for all of its students, which are recognised and valued by employers, and/or enable further study.’ This includes: Student continuation & completion, degree outcomes, & graduate employment.