Pressure or stimulant?

DUB panel divided when it comes to abolishing cum laude distinction

Cum Laude. Foto: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

UU's Medicine programme is considering following in the footsteps of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, which has decided no longer to grant cum laude diplomas to those graduating with exceptional grades.

In an interview with Dutch newspaper Trouw, UU's educational coordinator Clara Drenth argues that cum laude diplomas contribute significantly to the stress felt by many students. "We've noticed that some students even avoid asking for feedback during their residencies. They are afraid that such a question will be seen as an insecurity, which would result in a lower grade and, ultimately, no cum laude."

Later this month, UU's doctors will hold a session to discuss the intention to scrap cum laude diplomas altogether. In a meeting held this week, the student members of the faculty council manifested their support for an abolition.

It's been revealed that the criteria students must meet to graduate cum laude varies greatly not only among universities but also among the faculties and programmes of the same university. A recent DUB article (available in Dutch only, Ed.) demonstrated that students are more likely to get cum laude diplomas in certain faculties, compared to others.

Maybe Medicine programmes are starting a trend in the Netherlands: After they abolish the cum laude distinction, others will follow suit. Is that desirable, though? We asked that question to our panel of students and employees.

Down with cum laude!

Innovation scientist Frank van Rijnsoever reacts to our question with a resounding "yes". In his view, cum laude diplomas are outfashioned. "It doesn't belong in our times and it leads to a lot of stress among students. Besides, I'm not so sure if a student whose average grade is a little bit above 8 is that much better than someone whose grade is right below 8," he explains.

"There is also the fact that cum laude is mostly about grades and length of study, which is a rather narrow view of what a study entails. Things like international experience, volunteering or participating in councils are not taken into account, even though they are an essential part of the student experience."

Philosopher Floris van den Berg doesn't see things that way. He answered "no" to our question without hesitation. "I believe a university should have room for different types of excellence, and that includes excelling in your studies and then being awarded a distinction for that. It's not that bad to have a little bit of competition and drive towards excellence through high scores."

He goes on: "Universities are meritocratic institutions that revolve around excellence, so a cum laude distinction is part of it. It's good to make clear that some students perform a lot better than others. Students should be proud of their results and thus proud of a cum laude diploma."

The students in our panel struggle with the matter. Psychology student Levi Bierhuizen answers "yes", albeit hesitantly. "I can imagine that being able to work extra hard to obtain a distinction is motivating for some. It also gives companies an additional bit of information about a potential employee's work ethic and results," he acknowledges.

"However, I think that an employee's worth ethic can't be measured by their academic results alone. Besides, students are under a lot of pressure to perform these days and a specific distinction based on results maintains that pressure. Abolishing cum laude could be a good first step towards reducing that pressure."

Medicine student Thomas Visser argues that it should be up to each programme to define whether or not the distinction is useful for them. "In a programme such as Medicine, the evaluation varies per doctor and it's often based on rather subjective standards, which can generate unequal opportunities and a lot of stress. If you don't have a click with a certain doctor, for example, it gets a bit harder to obtain a good grade for your 'relationship with your colleagues', for example. And that's necessary to get a cum laude diploma."

"So, at least for the Medicine programme, I find that ditching the distinction is a good idea. But evaluations seem to be more objective in programmes like Biology or Mathematics, which makes things fairer for everybody and gives students more sense of control over the grades they get. In those cases, a distinction such as cum laude offers a good opportunity for students to stand out."

Education scientist Casper Hulshof agrees that UU's programmes don't need to all follow the same path. "I would say: Let each faculty make its own choices. They could do it through the Education and Examination Regulation. I don't think cum laude diplomas need to be abolished at the Faculty of Social Sciences, as the distinction applies an additional cachet to someone's performance, which is why some students really go for it. That makes for diversity and variety."

Like Thomas, Sterre van Wierst, a Master's student in Cancer, Stem Cells & Developmental Biology, also underscores the biases that occur in the evaluations of Medicine students during residencies and internships. "Students with a migration background consistently get lower grades in their residencies, and they are more likely to feel discriminated against too," she observes, mentioning this news article.

At the same time, she feels that "hard work should be rewarded" but wonders whether a cum laude diploma is the best way to do that. "We shouldn't be wondering about the conditions the cum laude distinction was obtained either. Could the student count on financial support from their parents or did they have to take a side job?" Sterre adds: "It's also possible for the student to have gone through a tough phase in life, such as a breakup or the death of a loved one, causing them to not perform very well at an exam, just missing that eight." To conclude, Sterre thinks that Dutch universities could learn a thing or two from their British counterparts, which have a different way of showing appreciation for students. "Why don't we give a pretty title such as with merit to someone who gets a 7.8 (so, right below the grade necessary for a cum laude)?"