The Dutch education system: Preparing for & Going to university

If it is likely that your child will (want to) go to university in your home country after graduating, then your best bet would be to find out whether there are any national schools from your home country here. Have a look at the list of all international schools per city in the Netherlands, or visit the Stichting Internationaal Onderwijs (the International Education Foundation).

If there are no schools that offer your home country programme, check whether the school you want to send your child to offers the IB (International Baccalaureate)-programme, as almost all, if not all, universities accept the IB-diploma. Particularly the international schools and the Dutch schools with an "international stream" are likely to have this programme.

Another option would be to send your children to a fully Dutch school. This will qualify them for a Dutch university, and chances are that if they want to go to a university in another country, all they need to do is pass an aptitude (and language) test.

The Higher Education System in the Netherlands

The higher education system in the Netherlands is based on a three-cycle degree system, consisting of a bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D degree. The higher education system also makes a distinction between research-oriented education (WO) and professional higher education (HBO).

 Research universities in the Netherlands

Research universities (including the Open University) are primarily responsible for offering research-oriented programmes (Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs, WO). They offer an education and the possibility to conduct research in a wide range of disciplines: language and culture, behaviour and society, economics, law, medical and health sciences, natural sciences, engineering and agriculture.

 Universities of professional education (HBO)

Universities of professional education include general institutions as well as institutions specialising in one of seven sectors: agriculture, engineering and technology, economics and business administration, health care, fine and performing arts, education (teacher training), and social welfare.

These universities are primarily responsible for offering programmes (Hoger Beroepsonderwijs, HBO) that prepare students for particular professions. These tend to be more practically oriented than programmes offered by research universities. In addition to lectures, seminars, projects and independent study, students are required to complete an internship or work placement (stage) which normally takes up part of the third year of study, as well as a final project or a major paper in the fourth year.

 Requirements for admission to higher education in the Netherlands

For access to WO bachelor’s programmes, students are required to have a VWO diploma or to have completed the first year (60 credits) of an HBO programme. The minimum access requirement for HBO is either a HAVO diploma or a level-4 MBO diploma. If you have a foreign diploma, this will have to be evaluated by the IDW (Internationale DiplomaWaardering, or International Diploma Evaluation).

Potential students older than 21 years of age who do not possess one of the qualifications mentioned above can qualify for access to higher education on the basis of an entrance examination and assessment. The only access requirement for the Open Universiteit is that applicants be at least 18 years of age.


Bachelor’s degrees are obtained both through a university and through a university of professional education. In the case of an HBO bachelor’s degree - which is obtained after four years of study - you are awarded BA in a particular field, but not a Bachelor’s of Science or Arts. In the case of a WO-bachelor’s degree - which is obtained after three years of study - this is a Bachelor’s of Science of Arts.

The same distinction is made for master’s degrees, which take one to two years to obtain. HBO-bachelor’s degree programmes are longer due to their focus on practical experience, requiring students to follow in-company training.

Once a WO-BA has been obtained at a particular university, this automatically qualifies the student to continue on to at least one type of MA (in most cases) at the same university. Subject to conditions, this can also be at a different university in the Netherlands. Should the student choose to "switch" directions and go for a different MA-programme at the same university, the university could place additional requirements.

 Associate Degree

The associate degree-programme is a two-year "learning path" that awards an intermediate higher education and is available to MBO-graduates (see earlier) and job-searchers who wish to get a further education and improve their job perspectives - provided they have the right degree or work experience to enter the programme.

Once they have obtained an associate degree, graduates also have the option of going straight on to the last two years of an HBO-programme, and obtaining a bachelor’s degree.

 Doctorate / Ph.D in the Netherlands

A doctorate can only be pursued at a research university. The doctorate is primarily a research degree, for which a dissertation based on original research must be written and publicly defended. The minimum amount of time required to complete a doctorate is four years.

Most students working on doctorates are in fact paid employees rather than students. They apply for positions as AIOs, or research assistants. These positions are advertised in the same way jobs in the Netherlands are, and candidates approach the supervisor directly. Foreign nationals may apply for these positions and ask for permission to write their dissertation in another language. Candidates may also contact a university faculty independently, and write their own research proposal. Sometimes the research for a dissertation can be conducted in the candidate’s own country.

It is not necessary to take on a position as an AIO in order to get a Ph.D. It is merely a relatively attractive option as it means you do not have to go in search of a source of income while working on your Ph.D.

Choosing a university in the Netherlands

The Dutch system of quality control guarantees that the education offered at all the institutions meets the same high standards. When Dutch students choose where they want to study, they are not thinking of which university or university of professional education is best, but instead look at which specialisations are offered and which emphasis or academic tradition is featured. Each institution has its own atmosphere and style; they distinguish themselves in this way, and not through any absolute measure of quality.

 International education

The Dutch higher education system offers a growing number of courses in English, both specialised courses as well as entire bachelor’s and master’s programmes. Some institutions also offer Ph.D-programmes. Courses and programmes of various types, including master’s programmes, are offered in a wide range of specific fields. The emphasis can be either on research or on the practical application of knowledge. This coming year, there will be 1.560 international courses on offer - 1.543 of which will be taught entirely in English. You can find a list of these on, or

The programmes and courses vary in length from three months to two years. In most cases, students are required to have completed a programme of higher education in their own country. Usually this is a bachelor’s degree or its equivalent. The longer International Education courses lead to a master’s degree. Some of the International Education institutes have an arrangement with a Dutch university pursuant to which students can go on to pursue a doctorate after earning their master’s degree.

Aside from the bachelor’s or master’s degree requirement, students are often also required to have work experience to enter these programmes. Some advanced training courses have been originally designed for people from developing countries whose jobs require highly specialised knowledge. Again, visit IDW to see about having your diploma evaluated, if it was not awarded in the Netherlands.


How do you know for sure that your course or programme is of the right quality? Find out whether it has been accredited by the Dutch and Flemish Accreditation Organisation (Nederlands Vlaamse Accreditatie Organisatie,, which has been appointed by the Dutch and Flemish government for the purpose of monitoring the quality of the higher education courses and programmes on offer.

Most institutions that offer English-language education have been required to sign a special Code of Conduct that imposes additional requirements. Only those institutions that have done this may place their courses and programmes on

If you want to know more about the state of affairs of non-bona fide course and programmes, visit CIDM.

This is the second part of the "From K to PH.D" article written by Stephanie Dijkstra, editor-in-chief of The XPat Journal. Have a look at the current edition or subscribe here.

Previous in the series
 The Dutch education system: Primary & Secondary education

Stephanie Dijkstra


Stephanie Dijkstra

Stephanie Dijkstra is a Third Culture Kid in every possible way. Raised in four countries by Dutch/American parents, both of whom also grew up in several countries, the world is...

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