Higher education system in The Netherlands

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The Netherlands, also known as Holland, has an internationally oriented higher education system. Almost one fourth of all programmes are offered in English.

Types of Institutions

In the Netherlands, there are three types of higher education institutions:

  • Government-funded (bekostigde): Thirteen universiteiten, the Open Universiteit and more than 50 hogescholen receive funds from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science or the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation and are entitled to award officially recognised degrees. These institutions offer study programmes for which the tuition fees are established by law.
  • Approved (aangewezen): , including the Universiteit voor Humanistiek and the Nyenrode Business Universiteit, are institutions that receive no funding from the Dutch government, but may still award officially recognised bachelor’s or master’s degrees. These institutions are not bound by the official tuition fees, but may determine their tuition fees themselves.
  • Private (particuliere) institutions: for example foreign universities, are institutions that are not covered by Dutch government regulations.

Research-oriented education (wetenschappelijk onderwijs) is given at fourteen Dutch research universities (universiteiten) in the Netherlands, including the Open Universiteit, but collaboration with universities of applied sciences (hogescholen) is becoming increasingly common. Most universities offer study programmes in various disciplines, such as economics (economie), law (rechten), medicine (geneeskunde), language and culture (taal- en cultuur), natural sciences (natuurwetenschappen) and public administration (bestuurswetenschappen); one universiteit specializes in agriculture and the environment and three universiteiten primarily offer technical study programmes. Wetenschappelijk onderwijs can also be followed at a University college, which is generally part of a universiteit. These colleges mainly offer undergraduate programmes in liberal arts.

Higher professional education is primarily offered by universities of applied sciences (hogescholen). The HBO has seven educational sectors: higher education in agriculture (hoger agrarisch onderwijs, HAO), higher education in economics, business and management (hoger economisch onderwijs, HEO), higher education in health care (hoger gezondheidszorgonderwijs, HGZO), teacher training (hoger pedagogisch onderwijs, HPO), higher education in social work (hoger sociaal-agogisch onderwijs, HSAO), higher education in engineering (hoger technisch onderwijs, HTNO) and art education (kunstonderwijs, KUO). Within these sectors, students can choose from various educational profiles. Almost all types of study programme can be followed at universities of applied sciences, located all over the Netherlands. Some hogescholen primarily offer study programmes in the field of agriculture or art, or specialize in teacher training. Within the HBO, higher education in economics, business and management is by far the largest sector, followed by teacher training and study programmes in engineering.

Degree structure

The Netherlands has a three cycle degree structure in line with the European Higher Education Area.

Research-oriented education (Wetenschappelijk onderwijs, WO)

Research-oriented education offers study programmes with the primary objective of “independent academic participation or the professional use of academic knowledge”. Research-oriented education is divided into three study cycles. Study programmes are divided into a bachelor’s programme of 3 years (180 ECTS) followed by a master’s programme that lasts 1 year (60 ECTS), 2 years (120 ECTS) or 3 years (180 ECTS), depending on the specialization. This can be followed by research for a doctor’s degree, which generally lasts 4 years. No ECTS credits are generally linked to this cycle.

Bachelor of Arts (BA) / Bachelor of Science (BSc)
  • Bologna cycle: -
  • Level in EQF: 6
  • Credit range: 180 ECTS
  • Duration: 3 years
  • General admission requirements: Admission to a programme at a research university (wetenschappelijk onderwijs, WO) requires a VWO diploma or the completion of the first year of higher professional education (HBO), in some cases with additional requirements relating to the subjects taken.
  • Description: The first cycle in research-oriented education lasts 3 years and leads to the title of Bachelor, with the addition ‘of Arts, of Science’, depending on the specialization. Students who graduate from a Law programme receive the title Bachelor of Laws (LLB). The bachelor’s programme may be divided into a first-year component (propedeutische fase) and a main component, and it has an academic orientation. Depending on the institution, students will focus primarily on one specialization, or on a main and subsidiary subject, known as the major/minor structure. In the third year of the study programme, students are often required to write a short final paper (scriptie). Every bachelor’s degree automatically gives admission to at least one master’s programme at the same university, but a bachelor’s degree may also conclude the student’s education. Admission to master’s programmes at other institutions is also possible if this is approved by the executive board of the institution and a certificate of admission is issued.
  • Additional explanation:-

Master of Arts (MA) / Master of Science (MSc)
  • Bologna cycle: -
  • Level in EQF: 7
  • Credit range: 60-180 ECTS
  • Duration: 1-3 years. The second cycle in research-oriented education lasts 1 year (for most specialisations), 2 years (engineering and scientific specialisations) or 3 years (medicine, veterinary science, pharmaceutical science and dentistry).
  • General admission requirements: With effect from the academic year 2010/2011, the bachelor’s diploma is compulsory for admission to the master’s programme.
  • Description: Since the introduction of the bachelor’s-master’s degree structure in 2002, this cycle leads to the title of Master, with the addition ‘of Arts, of Science’, depending on the specialisation. Students who graduate from a law programme receive the title Master of Laws (LLM). Under certain conditions, graduates from master’s programmes in research-oriented education are still entitled to use one of the traditional Dutch titles, depending on the specialisation. For most specialisation, this is the title doctorandus (drs.); for engineering studies or programmes in the field of agriculture and the natural environment, this is the title ingenieur (ir.) and for study programmes in Law, the title meester (mr.). During the second cycle, the student specialises in a particular field and is also taught about research methods. For most specialisation, writing a final paper is a compulsory component of the study programme.
  • Additional explanation:-
  • Bologna cycle: -
  • Level in EQF: -
  • Credit range: No ECTS credits are generally linked to this cycle
  • Duration: The third cycle of research-oriented education generally lasts 4 years and leads to the title of doctor (dr.).
  • General admission requirements:A master’s degree obtained in higher education can give admission to the doctoral programme (promotie).
  • Description: This primarily involves carrying out an independent research project, sometimes in combination with a study programme. The doctoral candidate (promovendus) writes a doctoral thesis (proefschrift) under the supervision of one or more supervisors (promotoren). After the thesis has been defended in public, the title of doctor is awarded. In addition, the three engineering universities offer third cycle programmes in technical design. These technical designer programmes have a nominal duration of 2 years. Graduates obtain the degree “Professional Doctorate in Engineering (PDEng)”.
  • Additional explanation:-

Higher professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs, HBO)

Higher professional education (HBO) is a form of higher education that has a more practical orientation, and its primary objective is “the transfer of theoretical knowledge and the development of skills that are closely linked to professional practice”.

Universities of applied sciences offer both bachelor’s programmes and Associate degree programmes. With effect from 1 September 2002, all initial higher professional education programmes have been converted into bachelor’s programmes. Since the introduction of the bachelor’s-master’s degree structure, it has also been possible for universities of applied sciences to offer master’s programmes. These programmes are recognised by law, provided they have been accredited by Accreditation organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders NVAO. See under Quality Assurance and accreditation. Besides this, universities of applied sciences still offer graduate programmes. Since the introduction of the bachelor’s-master’s degree structure, these programmes have continued to exist in their current form until such time as they are converted into master’s programmes. In most cases, this conversion has already taken place. These are graduate programmes in art education (kunstonderwijs) and architecture (bouwkunde) and the advanced teacher training programmes for special education and for teaching general subjects at all levels of secondary education.

Higher professional education is divided into two cycles: a bachelor’s programme lasting 4 years (240 ECTS) followed by a master’s programme of 1 year (60 ECTS) or 2 years (120 ECTS), depending on the specialisation. A master’s degree obtained at a university of applied sciences can give admission to the doctoral programme, the third cycle in higher education.

Bachelor’s programmes
  • Bologna cycle: -
  • Level in EQF: 6
  • Credit range: 240 ECTS
  • Duration: 4 years.
  • General admission requirements: Admission to higher professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs, HBO) requires a HAVO or VWO diploma. For this type of education, too, additional requirements relating to the subjects taken apply in some cases. Admission to the HBO is also possible on the basis of a diploma from a management training (middenkaderopleiding) or specialist training (specialistenopleiding) programme in the MBO: in addition to admission to the HBO, this diploma also gives exemption from the first year in some cases, provided it has been obtained in a related field of study. Admission to the shorter associate degree programme takes place on the basis of the same admission requirements as those for the HBO programme in question.
  • Description: The first cycle of higher professional education lasts 4 years and leads to the title of Bachelor, with the addition of the specialisation in which the degree has been obtained (for example Bachelor of Economics, Bachelor of Education). Depending on the specialization, graduates from bachelor’s programmes in higher professional education are still entitled under certain conditions to use one of the traditional Dutch titles, baccalaureus (bc.) or ingenieur (ing.). The study programme in the first cycle is divided into a propedeuse (the first year) followed by a main programme of 3 years. Students carry out a compulsory internship lasting about 9 months to acquire practical experience, mostly in the third year. On the basis of this internship, the fourth year includes a final paper or graduation project.
  • Additional explanation:-
Associate degree programme (Ad-programme)
  • Bologna cycle: -
  • Level in EQF: 5
  • Credit range: 240 ECTS
  • Duration: 2 years
  • General admission requirements:
  • Description: A short cycle also exists within the first cycle. This lasts 2 years (120 ECTS) and is completed with an Associate Degree. The first pilot Associate degree programmes started in 2006 / 2007. The Associate Degree (abbreviated AD) was introduced by law in 2007. It is a new type of higher education that forms part of a bachelor’s programme in higher professional education. At present, almost 60 Associate degree programmes can already be followed in the specialisations behaviour and society (gedrag en maatschappij), health care (gezondheidszorg), engineering (techniek), economics (economie), agriculture and the natural environment (landbouw en natuurlijke omgeving) and language and culture (taal en cultuur). In the future, Associate degree programmes leading to a teaching qualification for secondary or vocational education will probably also be offered. After obtaining an Associate Degree, students may choose whether to enter the labour market or to follow the corresponding HBO bachelor’s programme: after completing an Associate degree programme, students can obtain a bachelor’s degree within 2 years.
  • Additional explanation:-
Master’s programmes
  • Bologna cycle: -
  • Level in EQF: 7
  • Credit range: 60-120 ECTS
  • Duration: 1-2 years. The second cycle in higher professional education usually lasts 1 year, but in some specializations (such as music) this is 2 years.
  • General admission requirements:
  • Description: This cycle leads to the title of Master with the addition of the specialization in which the degree has been obtained, for example Master of Social Work. During the master’s programme, the student specialises further in carrying out a particular profession. A final paper or graduation project forms part of the programme, with the emphasis on applied research. The range of titles in higher professional education will be expanded in the (near) future.
  • Additional explanation:-

Degree structure chart

Netherlands degree structure.png

National Framework of Qualifications

Netherlands national framework of qualifications.png

Quality assurance and accreditation

In the Netherlands, the Accreditation Organisation of the Netherlands and Flanders (NVAO) is responsible for the accreditation of study programmes. The NVAO is a member of both the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ENQA) and the European Consortium for Accreditation (ECA).

The main task of the organisation is to monitor the quality of higher education in the Netherlands and Flanders. It does this on the basis of the tasks described in the Higher Education and Research Act (WHW) and in accordance with current international accreditation practice. The task description includes monitoring the quality of existing higher education study programmes and assessing the quality of new study programmes. Higher education institutions are not required to have accreditation, but only students registered for an accredited study programme are eligible for student grants and obtain a recognised degree. The higher education institution appoints a review committee (visitatiecommissie, VBI) itself to assess the quality of the study programme. It is compulsory for the committee to consult independent experts. The VBI bases its assessment on the criteria established by the NVAO for the accreditation and assessment of study programmes. On the basis of the report from the VBI, the NVAO takes a decision about the accreditation of a study programme, which is valid for 6 years.

Since January 2011, the Netherlands has a new accreditation system. Beginning 2011, higher education institutions can request the NVAO to conduct an institutional quality assurance assessment to determine the extent to which the institution is capable of guaranteeing the quality of the programmes it offers. Programmes offered by institutions that receive a positive evaluation still have to be accredited, but the accreditation procedure takes less time and is not as extensive. An overview of accredited bachelor’s and master’s programmes is available on the NVAO website.

Besides the NVAO website, the Central Register of Higher Education Study Programmes (Centraal Register Opleidingen Hoger Onderwijs, CROHO) can also be consulted if you wish to check if a programme is accredited. The CROHO register lists all the accredited programmes offered by both government-funded and approved higher education institutions. More information can be found on the website of the Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs (DUO).

Additionally, the Netherlands has an instrument that has the objective of guaranteeing the quality of the internationalisation of Dutch higher education: the Code of Conduct (Gedragscode Internationale Studenten). This code of conduct came into force in Dutch higher education with effect from 1 May 2006. An institution that signs the code of conduct undertakes to keep the rules stated in the code for ‘good practice’ in relation to the recruitment and admission of foreign students and the provision of information and education to foreign students. A national committee monitors compliance with the requirements stated in the code of conduct. A list of the higher education institutions that have signed the Code of Conduct can be found on the website of DUO, which acts as administrator of the Code of Conduct register.

Regulatory framework

The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (ministerie van OCW) has the political responsibility for the educational system and is bound by national legislation: the Higher Education and Research Act (Wet op het hoger onderwijs en wetenschappelijk onderzoek, WHW) and the Student Grants Act 2000 (Wet studiefinanciering 2000, WSF 2000). The WSF was last amended in 2007, and an important result of this is that since 1 September 2007, students have been able to take their student grants abroad under certain conditions in order to obtain a higher education degree there.

The Ministry of Education is responsible to a large extent for the financing of the education system, defines the general education policy and specifies the admission requirements, structure and objectives of the education system on general lines. In addition, the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport (ministerie van VWS) and the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture, and Innovation (ministerie van Economische Zaken, Landbouw en Innovatie) are involved in the content of higher education. At all levels (primary, secondary and higher education), there is a general trend towards fewer rules and regulations, so that institutions can take responsibility themselves for the implementation of government policy.

The Dutch education system consists of 8 years of primary education, 4, 5 or 6 years of secondary education, depending on the type of school, and 2 to 6 years of higher education, depending on the type of education and the specialization. Both public and private institutions exist at all levels of the education system; the private institutions are in most cases based on religious or ideological principles.

Dutch higher education has a binary system, which means that a distinction is made between research oriented education (wetenschappelijk onderwijs) and higher professional education (hoger beroepsonderwijs). This difference in orientation has continued to exist after the introduction of the bachelor’s-master’s degree structure in 2002. Research-oriented education takes place primarily at research universities (universiteiten) and the higher professional education at universities of applied sciences (hogescholen). As well as the different objectives, each of the two types of education has its own admission requirements, programme duration and titles.

The language of education is Dutch, but under the influence of the Bologna process, more and more study programmes are being offered in English. Education is compulsory in the Netherlands between the ages of 5 and 16.

The academic year runs from 1 September until 31 August.

Joint programmes and degrees

Regulatory Framework

Since 1 July 2010 Dutch higher education institutions are allowed to offer joint degrees. The award of a joint degree is not limited to the successful completion of a full joint Bachelor’s or Master’s degree programme. It can also pertain to a part of the curriculum offered jointly, such as a specialisation or a specific track within a programme.

National Definitions:

  • Joint programme: A programme offered jointly by different higher education institutions irrespective of the degree (joint, multiple and double) awarded.
  • Joint degree: A recognised degree awarded by higher education institutions that offer the joint programme, attesting the successful completion of this joint programme. It is a single document nationally acknowledged as the recognised award of the joint programme and signed by the competent authorities (rectors, vice-chancellors, ...) of the institutions involved in the joint degree.

See also:

Quality assurance and accreditation

International context

  1. Accreditation and quality assurance of joint programmes is a challenge for both the higher education institutions and the quality assurance agencies. The main apparent difficulty is the fact that the programme is organised by higher education institutions from different higher education systems and that each of these systems have their own systems of external quality assurance. This situation creates a burden for joint programmes that need to meet all the expectations arising from these different (and sometimes contradictory) national contexts and legal requirements.
  2. The European Consortium for Accreditation in higher education (ECA) facilitates the recognition of accreditation decisions across borders through MULTRA. In addition a Coordination Point is set up by ECA to allow joint programmes consortia undergo only one single accreditation procedure instead of multiple national accreditation procedures.

Below, you will find the description of the Dutch national procedures regarding the quality assurance and accreditation of joint programmes and degrees.


It is possible to apply for the accreditation of a joint degree programme in the following situations:

1. Two or more Dutch institutions intend to:

  • award a joint degree after successfull completion of a new joint programme or two or more existing (registered in CROHO) joint programmes;
  • award a joint degree after successfull completion of a jointly offered curriculum within two or more existing (registered in CROHO) joint programmes.
  • the contribution of each institution should be substantial enough to justify a joint degree application.

2. In collaboration with one or more foreign institutions, one or more Dutch institutions intend(s) to:

  • award a joint degree after successfull completion of a new or existing joint programmes;
  • award a joint degree after successfull completion of a jointly offered curriculum within two or more existing joint programmes.
  • the contribution of the Dutch institution(s) should be substantial enough to justify awarding a joint degree.

Grounds for exclusion

A joint degree programme is not possible in the following cases (grounds for exclusion):

  • within The Netherlands, if the intention is to link a joint degree to a combined HBO programme/track (professionally-oriented higher education) and a Dutch WO programme/track (academically-oriented higher education);
  • if the joint programme/track is offered jointly with one or more foreign institutions that is (are) not recognised in their own country or is (are) not entitled to take part in this joint degree programme.

Before an application is submitted, the applying institution(s) is (are) required to ascertain that the aforementioned grounds for exclusion do not occur and that the joint programme/track is offered in accordance with the laws and regulations in the Netherlands and in the other countries involved.

Registration of International students

To proceed with the registration of international students the Dutch institution(s) involved must be registered in the Code of Conduct Register and comply with its provisions. The joint degree can only be awarded to students who have successfully completed the programme or track jointly offered at the institutions involved.

Different assessment joint programme - joint degree

  1. Regular Assessment frameworks for the higher education accreditation system - programme assessment limited/extensive (The Netherlands), plus
  2. protocol for existing joint degree programmes or
  3. protocol for new joint degree programmes.
  • Specific requirements:
    • degree awarding, number of locations (in principle at least 2) and input from Dutch institution(s) (a substantial part);
    • a cooperation agreement between the participating institutions (this is a legal requirement).

See also


External links