Big differences between faculties: both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ cut in Master’s admission

This year's master selection was different from other years. Photo DUB

If you want to start a Master’s, you need to have graduated from your Bachelor’s degree. This so-called ‘hard cut’ was introduced nation-wide a few years ago, but at that point, it had already been a fixed rule at Utrecht University. This year, however, corona made things messier. The universities and even the government attempted to help out. Those who still have to complete their Bachelor’s studies, will still be allowed to start their Master’s. Universities were given the freedom to decide on the actual criteria.

In Utrecht, all Master’s programmes have selective admission. That begs the question of who selectively you’ll assess the students who haven’t completed their Bachelor’s yet. Rector Henk Kummeling says that in Utrecht, ‘selective’ means that everyone who meets the requirements is allowed to enrol in the Master’s programme, if there are enough available spots in the programme. “The fact that we’ve mainly got selective Master’s programmes, is often misunderstood – including by the government. It thinks we limit the number of admissions, mainly based on grades.

The fact that we’ve mainly got selective Master’s programmes, is often misunderstood – including by the government

That’s not true. At any rate, that isn’t the intention. The UU educational model assumes that the Master’s programmes are available to a broad group of students hailing from various programmes. The admission process aims to find the talented students who can successfully complete their Master’s.”

Creating a study plan
For most Master’s programmes, this meant that the students had to meet a number of requirements. Faculties were allowed to decide on these themselves. Vice dean Marian Jongmans of Social Sciences: “We’ve said that students could not have a deficit of more than 15 ECTS. Moreover, the study delay had to come from the third or fourth block. We’ve also asked students to create a study plan. In the study plan, students had to explain how they planned to complete their Bachelor’s while combining it with the Master’s programme. It has to be doable. There are also some courses in the Master’s programme for which they need to have completed a certain course from the Bachelor’s programme. The coordinators then assessed the study plans and talked to the students to come up with solutions. In the two-year Master’s programmes, the admission requirements for courses and grades are higher. That led to more discussion. Still, the principle remained the same, and we worked things out.”

Other faculties followed roughly the same path. The faculties of Sciences, Law, and Humanities also adopted the maximum deficit of 15 ECTS. The faculties had joined a national discussion about the topic, so comparable Master’s programmes would use similar criteria.

Completed Bachelor’s
The selection process mostly took place in the spring. At the time, it wasn’t always clear whether someone would be able to complete the Bachelor’s programme. In other years, that meant someone would get conditional admission, with the condition being that they could show the necessary paperwork before October 1.

Of the 900 Master’s students, only 20 students had to make use of this regulation. That’s a relatively small number

That was different this year. The programmes talked to the admitted students to see which courses had not been completed, and how the students could work that into their Master’s schedules. They’re given one year to fully complete their Bachelor’s programmes. “In the end, it turned out most candidates for Master’s programmes had graduated from their Bachelor’s,” says Jolle Demmers, professor of Conflict Studies and president of the admissions committee of the Humanities Master’s programmes. “Of the 900 Master’s students, only 20 students had to make use of this regulation. That’s a relatively small number.”

Hard cut
The faculty of Geosciences chose a different direction. For its two-year programmes, the faculty follows the path described above. But for the one-year programmes, it uses the hard cut as admissions requirement. “There was definitely some discussion about this within the faculty, but in the end, it was decided that it’s in the student’s best interest to have completed their Bachelor’s. The Master’s programmes don’t start off easy, and there isn’t enough room to take other courses or complete a thesis. Students are at risk of getting study delays right at the start. We did do our best to help students complete their theses before August 31. We haven’t heard anything from students who may have felt slighted,” says Femke van der Geest, head of education at the faculty. An exception was made for students starting a pre-master track for a one-year programme.

Medicine and Veterinary Medicine also use the hard cut, but in their Master’s programmes, students can enrol any month of the year. At Medicine, a deal was made with students that they’re allowed to take a course from the Master’s programme during their Bachelor. When they’re in the Master’s programme, they’ll get an exemption for that course.

Limited number of places
This is all about Master’s that, as Kummeling says, have a broad setup and are accessible to anyone who meets the requirements. There are also Master’s programmes that have a limited number of places – for instance because there are very few internships available, or because the programme wants to educate a small number of high-achieving students. These programmes have more candidates than they have places. Wouldn’t it make sense to give preference to graduated Bachelor’s students during the admissions process?

Our Master’s programme is so intensive that it’ll be very difficult for students to have to combine it with courses from their Bachelor’s programme

The research Master’s of the Graduate School of Life Sciences are an example. “We thought long and hard about how to handle this,” says Harold van Rijen, chairman of the admissions committee. “In the end, we decided to use the hard cut as a criterion in our admissions process. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, our Master’s programme is so intensive that it’ll be very difficult for students to have to combine it with courses from their Bachelor’s programme. A ‘soft cut’ would also give Dutch students an advantage over international ones; they have more options for graduating from their Bachelor’s programmes. In our view, that wouldn’t be equal treatment anymore.”

The Graduate School of Life Sciences has around 1,650 applicants for 500 places. No matter what, it will have to disappoint some students. In the selection process, the school looks at degrees, grades, letters of recommendation, and the motivation letter students had to write. In that letter, they have to indicate why the research Master’s is a logical next step from their previous programme. Life Sciences has, however, found another way to cater to students who are missing out due to the corona crisis: there will be an additional entry point in February.

Mixed group
Still, there are some selective Master’s programmes with a limited number of places that did decide on a ‘soft cut’. One example is the Governance Master’s programme. Director of education Jeroen Vermeulen: “We have around 300 applicants and around 200 places. We treated the admissions process the same way we’ve done in previous years. We don’t select students until after we’ve had individual conversations with each and every candidate, and checked their file, with the courses they’ve taken and the grades they’ve obtained. We include the make-up of the group in the process of selecting students, to ensure we’ve got a sufficiently varied group. We only looked at whether a student has completed their Bachelor’s programme after the selection process. For those who hadn’t graduated yet, a study advisor talked to them to create a study plan. They were only allowed a 15 ECTS deficit, and their thesis has to be completed before October 1.”

We don’t select students until after we’ve had individual conversations with each and every candidate

At Humanities, students were also allowed to start a numerus clausus programme without a Bachelor’s degree, too. “We have four Master’s programmes that have more applicants than places. In the admissions process, we use a number of clear criteria. We look at grades, writing skills, and the curriculum they’ve done. We try to make those criteria as transparent as possible. This year, the completed Bachelor was not one of the requirements. We’ve had talks with the students who are unable to complete their Bachelor’s before October, but there weren’t that many of them. One remarkable corona effect is that there are significantly fewer no-show students. You always have to assume that some of the students who’ve enrolled won’t actually show up. That’s why we generally admit more students than we have places for. But this year, the number of drop-outs was a lot lower than in previous years. Almost all the international students came to Utrecht, too. As a result, we’ve got slightly larger groups in the Master’s programme now.”