Without excluding "weaker" students

Lottery system makes a comeback at Dutch universities

Minister van Onderwijs Robbert Dijkgraaf
The minister Robbert Dijkgraaf. Photo: Wikipedia

Dijkgraaf commented on this topic during a debate in the Dutch Parliament. They were discussing a legislative proposal that has been in the works for quite some time. The lottery system was abolished from Dutch higher education in 2017, when the government decided that chance should no longer play a role in the admission procedure of programmes with a limited number of spots. Instead, students were to be selected on the basis of talent and motivation.

However, programmes will soon be able to select their students as they see fit, which means they can either keep their current approach or use a lottery system to decide which prospective students will get in. If they prefer, they can give some students a better chance of being admitted than others — one way to do that is by taking their qualifications and motivation into account. Combining the two methods is also an option. For example, programmes could select the most suitable students first and then use the lottery system for the remaining spots.

No pushback
There was no pushback at all for the legislative proposal. Although the left-wing opposition parties are against any form of selection in higher education and would prefer to rely solely on a lottery system, they considered the current proposal a step in the right direction.

Other parties, such as VVD (centre-right) and PVV (far-right) believe that selection is a fairer system than a lottery. But VVD, which leads the government coalition, is also in favour of programmes being able to decide for themselves — and this freedom of choice is safeguarded in the current legislative proposal.

Even so, VVD, CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal, Ed.) and ChristenUnie (Christian Union, Ed.) jointly submitted an amendment to the proposal, in which they ask for slightly more options. This move is also backed by universities and university hospitals. The goal is to allow them not only to select the best candidates prior to the lottery but reject the weakest, which would leave only average students to take part in the lottery.

Error in judgement
Minister Dijkgraaf is not a fan of this idea. “There’s an error in judgement frequently made in this regard, one I used to make myself”, he told the Parliament. “We tend to think of the student population as a bell curve, with a group of highly talented individuals you would happily admit without a second thought, and a group of less talented people you would prefer to reject as easily as possible. But that’s not what a student population actually looks like.”

According to the minister, it is possible to distinguish a small group at the very top, but just below them is “a large number of students whose scores are slightly less impressive”. In his view, it is almost impossible to make a meaningful distinction within this group. “If you decide to cut off a section, you really have no idea who you are actually excluding. It is not a symmetrical situation.”

The minister also objects to this idea. In the current selection system for programmes with a limited number of spots, students are given a ranking. So, in theory, anyone can be admitted if enough people at the top decide to drop out and choose another programme. Rejecting prospective students from the outset means they will not have any chance at all.

This objection did little to change the minds of the three governing parties responsible for submitting the amendment. The fourth governing one, D66, refused to back the amendment due to concerns that it will have an adverse effect on equal opportunity.

Equal opportunity
In the debate, the politicians mainly crossed swords with regard to the definition of terms such as equal opportunity and diversity. Is it a bad thing if certain groups of students are not selected as often as others?

Zohair El Yassini (VVD) doesn’t see a problem and wants effort and talent to be deciding factors for programmes such as Medicine. “I have friends and acquaintances with a non-Western background who studied Medicine and went on to become doctors and surgeons”, he said. “I think that’s great. They are prime examples of the equal opportunity we are talking about.”

But left-wing parties are less convinced by the selection procedures and fear that inequality will only increase as a result. They point out that it is easier for some students to obtain tutoring or help from their parents in writing a letter of motivation, for example. So what exactly is the selection based on?

Lisa Westerveld (GroenLinks) gave the example of a young person wanting to study Medicine, whose parents are doctors. “Compare them to a student who comes from a migrant family, where Dutch is not spoken at the same level. The first student generally has a better chance of being selected for the programme, but how much does that really say about their talent or whether they will go on to become a good doctor?”

The discussion is by no means over, especially in light of a highly critical report published by the Inspectorate of Education. Minister Dijkgraaf has promised to discuss the report’s findings at a later date. He says one of the conclusions is that “we need to enter into more frequent dialogue with institutes of higher education” on the wisdom of using lotteries and selection procedures.

If the proposal is adopted, the legislation will not come into effect until at least a year from now. The selection procedures for the 2023/2024 academic year are already underway and the proposal also needs to be approved by the Senate.