Popular study programmes operate selective admission. There aren’t enough places, so only students with sufficient talent and motivation will get in. But how do you pick them out?
‘Can a shy student become a good product designer?’ asks Inspector General Alida Oppers in her foreword to a new report about selection. ‘Or is it right that she has less chance of obtaining a place on a study programme than her extrovert fellow-candidate because she has to demonstrate her motivation at an interview?’
The Inspectorate of Education is concerned. ‘We have seen that study programmes that make selections generally set up and operate their selection procedures with the best of intentions’, says Oppers. ‘But everyone devises those procedures in their own way and at their own discretion, without consensus over what constitutes fair and effective selection.’
For instance, can you predict a student’s academic success on the basis of their motivation? Some study programmes say you can, referring to scientific articles, while other study programmes refer to articles that claim the opposite and therefore do not take motivation into account.
Shyness is not the only problem in selection. Cultural differences and the family income sometimes play a role too. And what do you do with the talent of late bloomers, who did not excel at secondary school?
In Master’s programmes in particular selection is often superfluous, in the Inspectorate’s view. After all, students already have to have the right prior education or they have to take a pre-Master’s programme to acquire certain knowledge and competencies. If Master’s programmes have enough places for new students, further selection is unnecessary. ‘The majority of study programmes do not carry out selection, and everything still works out well.’
So every study programme needs to think hard about the procedures, the Inspectorate believes: ‘Are there any unnecessary hoops that candidates have to jump through?’ A wide range of criteria could offer the potential to look more critically at the candidates, but the Inspectorate warns that ‘extra barriers’ could scare off prospective students.
It also wouldn’t hurt to have greater transparency about the selection methods and it helps if programmes and institutions share knowledge on this. That might seem like kicking at an open door, but the Inspectorate wants to do so anyway. ‘It is striking that the study programmes interviewed are in general ‘inward-looking’’, the report states. ‘What other study programmes and institutions do is not usually a focal point.’
Moreover, the Education Minister needs the tighten the reins somewhat, the Inspectorate advises. After all, the institutions are free to select students in any way they want. So it is ‘extremely important for the minister, as a guardian of public interests, to keep control of the entire system’.
One of the issues is whether every student ends up in the ‘right place’ and, if not, who is to blame? ‘How far does the responsibility of institutions and study programmes stretch with regard to reducing inequality of opportunity?’ the Inspectorate wonders. ‘Society has expectations in this respect and is investing in the system.’
Politically, selection is a sensitive topic. Hence D66, CDA and SP asked the government to investigate the substantiation of selection procedures. The government is not yet ready to react to the report. ‘A proper response to recommendations by the Inspectorate deserves time and attention’, writes Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. He promises to give a response before the summer.
The coalition agreement states that study programmes that operate selection must substantiate their choices. Is their procedure suitable for the study programme, is the selection effective and are ‘equal opportunities’ guaranteed? Dijkgraaf says that he will go into that in depth in his response to the report. ‘I look forward to exchanging ideas on this with the House after my response.’
It is not a foregone conclusion that the government will limit the potential for selection. The largest governing party, VVD, would prefer to encourage talent-based selection and the majorities vary on this topic in the House of Representatives. If you admit more people, are you then allowed to operate a stricter binding recommendation on continuation of studies in the first year?
The Inspectorate is not interfering with the political debate, but has shown a preference for equality of opportunity. ‘Because it is quite possible that a successful product designer is hiding in that shy student’, Inspector General Oppers writes. ‘As long as she gets the chance from the Dutch higher education system.’
The investigation gives ‘every reason for policymakers to subject decentralised selection to strict scrutiny’, she believes. That applies in particular to study programmes that in principle have sufficient places for new students. ‘We have seen little solid ground for genuinely sound selection in those cases.’