Briefly about secondary education in the Netherlands

Education in the Netherlands is compulsory for children ages 5 to 16. Schools are divided into 3 types:

  • State — controlled by local authorities;
  • Special religious — run by the school board and based on religion;
  • Special neutral — promote equality of religions.

These differences are present at all levels of education: for example, there may be Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim elementary, secondary schools, and universities.

In addition to differences in types of schools, there are different streams of secondary education:

VMBOPreparatory secondary vocational education4 yearsPractical knowledge that leads to vocational training (MBO)16 years of
HAVOSenior general secondary education5 yearsPrepares students for higher vocational education in applied sciences (HBO)17 years
VWOUniversity preparatory education6 yearsPrepares students for a bachelor's degree at research universities (WO)18 years

In addition to public schools, there are private schools in the Netherlands. They are much smaller and most are based on a particular religion.

Education in the Netherlands attracts students from all over the world with a wide selection of English-language programs, advanced interdisciplinary areas, and rich traditions. The education system in the country is based on the Anglo-Saxon model, so studies in Dutch universities take the methodology of British and American universities. Finally, studying in the Netherlands is comfortable and interesting, as the country has a unique atmosphere of free-thinking, innovation, and creativity.

Advantages of education in the Netherlands
  • English. The Netherlands is one of the first countries in Europe to launch English-language study programs at universities. Today in the country there are over 2100 programs in a wide variety of fields — from bioengineering to comparative literature. Therefore, the applicant does not need to learn the local language: knowledge of English will be sufficient and, if necessary, it is always possible to spend several months at a language school. However, it should be borne in mind that language schools in the Netherlands are not so common. A large number of English-language programs had a positive effect on the teaching staff — almost 40% of teachers in Dutch universities are foreigners, which contributes to the internationalization and development of universities. In addition, 95% of the country's inhabitants speak English, therefore, in everyday life, not knowing Dutch will not become a huge issue in the life of a foreigner.
  • Prospects for a scientific career. Most doctoral programs in the Netherlands are academic positions at universities that recruit candidates and pay them a salary. The developed material and technical base of universities, a great emphasis on the practical application of research results, and an active scientific community make the country's doctoral programs one of the best in Europe. In 2008-2017, the state won 700 grants from international research funds. And in 2013-2016, the Netherlands was included in 10% of the countries with the highest citation worldwide[1]. According to Rathenau Institute 2018 study, Dutch people are more confident in the country's research and science sector than in the judiciary, trade unions, newspapers, and television[2].
  • World recognition. In QS rating 2021, 9 Dutch universities entered the top 200 of the best universities in the world. The country itself is strongly associated with innovation and a creative approach to science and education. Strong university programs in urban planning, architecture, engineering, design and sustainable development, and art schools with a worldwide reputation have attracted progressive youth from all over the world for years.
  • Informal style. In Dutch universities, students and teachers are in an equal position. Here it is customary to address professors by name, ask questions while agreeing with the opinion of teachers on every issue is not required. This teaches the student independence in judgment, the ability to think critically and defend their point of view. University teachers are intermediaries in the acquisition of knowledge and guides to scientific discoveries, and not just knowledge dispensers.
  • "Happy learning". This is what the Dutch themselves call it. The education system in the Netherlands is fully student-centered: from kindergarten to university, educational institutions create favorable conditions for learning without stress. In universities, it is not customary to provoke competition or divide the group into “achievers” and the rest, and average results are considered the norm. This allows students not to lose confidence in their abilities and motivates them to work without the risks of depression and burning out.
  • Safety and multiculturalism. The country is one of the safest in the world, it is in the top 25 countries with the lowest crime rate in 2020[3]. And in the Global Peace ranking 2019, the Netherlands took 17th place[4]. The Netherlands welcomes foreigners. Here you can meet people of different nationalities, religions, political beliefs, and sexual orientations. The country houses both churches, mosques, synagogues, as well as Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh temples. Equality and multiculturalism are inherent characteristics of Dutch policy.
  • Free morals. The Netherlands, and especially the capital of Amsterdam, is known for its liberalism and tolerance. Ever since the Renaissance, the spirit of free-thinking prevails here, which attracts thousands of creative personalities from around the world. The Netherlands is perfect for students who want to meet interesting people and plunge into the fun life of a European student.

Disadvantages of education in the Netherlands
  • High costs. For non-EU citizens, training in the Netherlands is expensive. Bachelor's programs cost at least 8,172 USD per year of study, master's programs — more than 10,896 USD. The сost of living here is higher than in half of the countries of Western Europe[5]. Renting a room costs about 436 USD per month on average, and an apartment in the capital — from 872 USD per month. In addition, finding an apartment in Amsterdam before the start of the school year is extremely difficult. Partial reimbursements can be made through scholarship programs or part-time jobs.
  • Specific requirements for a school certificate. State research universities do not always take students who have completed only 11 years of school. Due to academic differences, admissions may require an extra year of study at the university in your home country or at the Foundation program. Therefore, some applicants decide to enter universities in the countries where a certificate of 11 grades is taken: for example, Austria or France. However, it is worth noting that almost all applied universities in the country accept candidates with 11 years of school education.
  • Lack of living space on campuses. The campuses of most prestigious universities in the Netherlands can accommodate less than 20% of students, while many other universities have completely abandoned the use of dormitories. The queue time for student dorms in the country can exceed a year, especially in Utrecht and Amsterdam. Therefore, students are independently looking for apartments or rooms, and this process can also take more than one month, especially for a foreign student without an open account in the Netherlands.
  • Climate. The Netherlands is located on the coast of the North Sea, so the country has cloudy weather, dank winds, and cold damp air. And in the northern cities of the country, for example, in Amsterdam, the Hague and Groningen, it is cold most of the year. In the summer, the country is warmer, the temperature reaches 25 °C, but even then the sun is a rare guest[6].

Foundation programs in the Netherlands

Reasons to attend the pre-university Foundation course:

  • The student does not have sufficient knowledge of English/Dutch for admission;
  • Documents or exam results do not meet academic requirements;
  • Smooth transition from school to higher education;
  • Adaptation to life and study in the Netherlands;
  • The opportunity to enter a prestigious research university bypassing the main competition.

Usually, Foundation programs last for 1 year. Successful graduates are automatically accepted to the university where the Foundation program was conducted, alternatively, students can try to enter other educational institutions. Via Foundation you can go to:

The information about the exact universities the applicant can enter through Foundation should be requested from the administration of the program itself.

Typically, preparatory courses include modules in specialized subjects (for example, business, economics and social sciences, engineering) and advanced language learning. During English/Dutch courses, in addition to language, the general academic program is taught. For example, scientific writing and reading, presentation, note-taking, and essay writing, the discussions in a foreign language. Some programs attach a mentor to students who provide support in bureaucratic procedures. In addition to classes, Foundation programs offer career guidance sessions and cultural events are sometimes organized.

For admission you need:

During the course, students are evaluated by writing and homework, presentations, and exams. At the end of the Foundation, students are not only ready to study at the university and adapted to the Dutch education system but are also familiar with the country and local culture.

Colleges — Vocational education in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, there are virtually no typical colleges that may be familiar to a student from outside the Netherlands. Higher professional education is considered to be associate/bachelor’s degrees at universities of applied sciences. And the remaining qualification courses or short programs are designed for unemployed or working adults. There are also MBO programs (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, literally "middle-level applied education") oriented towards vocational training. Students are usually teens and adults from 16 to 35 years old, but there are no age restrictions for courses. Programs last 1-4 years. However, to enter the MBO, you must know the Dutch language, at least at the A1 level, and have a residence permit in the country. There are no English-language colleges in the Netherlands.

More on MBO

There are 4 program levels:

  • Level 1: assistant training. It lasts a maximum of 1 year and teaches simple executive tasks. The graduate moves on to level 2.
  • Level 2: basic vocational education. The program is designed for 2-3 years of study and is focused on the implementation of management tasks.
  • Level 3: the program lasts for 3-4 years. Students are taught to independently solve the tasks.
  • Level 4: VET mid-level management. It lasts for 3-4 years. Prepares for work with higher responsibility and opens the door to higher education.

At all MBO levels, 2 curricula are offered:

  • School education — internships in the company take 20-59% of the time;
  • Apprenticeship — the internship is more than 60% of the study time.

After the Level 4 MBO, students can apply for an associate/bachelor's program at a university of applied sciences or start working. Professional programs are implemented by 43 regional vocational schools, 12 specialized trade colleges (vakscholen), 11 agricultural training centers (agrarische opleidingscentra), and one school for people with disabilities.

Bachelor’s in the Netherlands — Undergraduate

A bachelor's degree in the Netherlands can be obtained at a research university or at a university of applied sciences.

Universities of applied sciences teach many specialties, for example, healthcare, visual arts, agriculture, programming, design, law. Such universities have great academic freedom, as they independently determine the content and structure of the curriculum. For example, universities have introduced dual programs in which students study and then work.

Studying at applied universities is aimed at preparing students for work. Programs provide students with practical skills and competencies of specific relevant specialties. This is achieved through compulsory internships and project activities. As a rule, the study lasts 4 years and consists of 240 ECTS credits. After graduation, graduates are employed or enter a master’s program. There are also 3-year programs, but to enter them immediately after grade 11 (if that is a complete secondary education in your country), you need to go through Foundation.

In general, universities of applied sciences accept applicants with 11 years of school, but the requirements of each university should be checked. For example, at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences, you need to finish the year at the university of your country and only then you can continue your education in the Netherlands.

Research universities offer a wide range of undergraduate programs in economics, behavioral and social sciences, language and culture, engineering/technology, natural sciences, law, and medical sciences. Interdisciplinary humanities programs also exist.

The goal of science-based bachelor’s programs is to prepare students for further education. To this end, emphasis in training is placed on academic and scientific skills. Subjects in the curriculum can be general and specialized. Almost all programs have a mandatory research methodology course and include writing a final thesis. The duration of study is 3 years, the number of credits — 180. After receiving a bachelor's degree, students enter a master’s program or start working in their specialty.

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Master’s in the Netherlands — Graduate/Postgraduate

Masters programs in universities in the Netherlands are highly specialized in specific disciplines. Like bachelor’s programs, graduate programs are offered in research universities and universities of applied sciences.

Master’s at universities of applied sciences. The main goal of applied programs is to increase the knowledge and professional competence of students. Much attention is paid to improving analytical skills and preparing students for leadership positions in the specialty. Some programs are designed for full-time study, but most are part-time, as students combine study with work. This allows students to apply theory to practice in real-time and discuss life cases in the classroom with teachers and fellow students. Moreover, in many programs, research should be based on actual experience gained at work. Master's programs usually last from 1 to 4 years (60-240 credits).

Master’s at research universities. The main goal of science-oriented master's programs is to provide knowledge and improve the analytical skills of students. This is done so that in future students can conduct independent research.

The following master's programs exist:

  • Academic Master’s — advanced training for employment;
  • Research Master’s — scientific research inclination;
  • Teacher training programs — preparation for teaching in schools.

Most research university programs last 1 year (60 ECTS). Specialties at technical universities require 2 years. Research Master's studies, teacher training, and programs in technical fields (engineering, mathematics, natural sciences, and agriculture) last 2 years (120 ECTS). The longest are three-year programs in the field of medical sciences (180 ECTS).

Doctoral studies in the Netherlands — Postgraduate

Doctoral programs in the Netherlands are offered only by research universities and are held at graduate schools (within individual universities) or research schools (created by a consortium of several institutes for ongoing projects and research). PhD research focuses on a specific topic and is defended as a dissertation. Doctoral studies usually last for 4 years. PhD programs in the Netherlands are not typical and are divided into:

  • Paid PhD positions. In most countries, doctoral students are actual students, but in the Netherlands, they are researchers hired by a university to write a dissertation. Vacancies for doctoral positions are placed online, and applicants apply for them as they would apply for a job. The majority of candidates in the country occupy precisely those positions. However, getting a position is not easy due to high competition. Indeed, the PhD position in the Netherlands is a cherished dream of many students, which allows not only to learn for free and get a doctorate but also to earn money. Recruited candidates conduct research on the topic indicated in the vacancy and contribute to the academic work and activities of the university. Often doctoral students teach and perform other duties at the department. You can find a position through the website of academic vacancies, on the websites of universities, or directly at the departments of universities.
  • PhD training programs are offered at graduate schools and research institutes of some universities. These programs have general doctoral courses and specialized subjects in their specialty. PhD training programs usually charge students.
  • If the candidate has his own idea for a research project and has not found a suitable vacancy, then he can apply for an externally funded PhD position. The position gives the candidate access to the research community, international relations, and all the amenities of the university campus while working on research. For an externally funded PhD position the student needs to:
    • Find funding. To do this, you present your idea to universities or research groups that are engaged in research in this area and can provide funding;
    • Choose a university;
    • Find a supervisor. Present your idea to a professor whose work interests you or who is conducting research on the same subject;
    • Develop a curriculum with a supervisor in accordance with the standards, rules, and principles of the selected university.

It is worth highlighting the topic of PhD funding in the country. As a rule, in the Netherlands there are 3 ways to finance a doctoral degree:

  • Employment at a university (paid PhD positions);
  • Scholarship or grant awarded by an external organization (about 1/6 of all doctoral students in the country);
  • Sponsorship of the employer.

Organizations offering scholarships and grants can be found on the website of the European Researcher Support and at Grantfinder.

The remarkable thing in Dutch doctoral studies is the dissertation defence ceremony. It takes place in a formal setting, participants put on official academic clothes, and each has his own form of treatment. The candidate is accompanied by 2 people (paranimfen). In the past, they acted as bodyguards, if the situation was heating up between the academics. Nowadays, they serve as moral and administrative support. The dissertation is defended in front of the Doctoral Committee of 3 or more scientists (an odd number is required). Candidates may additionally be questioned by other invited academics.

Academic career in the Netherlands

In order to become a professor at a university in the Netherlands, you must have a PhD. Without it, you can only rely on assistant positions with a minimum salary. In addition to the degree, the applicant must obtain a BKO certificate (basic teaching qualification) following the results of a special exam. Additional requirements are the presence of cited publications in scientific journals and experience in participating in scientific projects.

In research universities, the selection of applicants for positions is strict, since here a successful candidate becomes both a teacher and a research associate. The teaching workload in universities is high. This is especially true for universitair docenten (teachers/associate professors) in the field of social sciences and humanities, who spend 70% of their time teaching and only 30% doing research. The remaining professors devote approximately 40% of their time to teaching and 60% to research. Thus, the educational process does not lag behind scientific progress.

Since the Netherlands makes a special bet on the internationality of the educational system, teachers should be fluent in English. Almost half of the academic staff of universities is foreign teachers.

An academic post is considered prestigious in the country, so a decent salary is also in place: from 3,269 USD to 8,716 USD per month.

The following permanent positions exist in universities:

Academic rankInternational equivalentTypical positions
Hoogleraar 1 and 2 Full professorDean of the faculty, head or academic advisor of the department / institute
Universitair hoofddocent
1 and 2
Associate professor (US), senior lecturer (UK), reader (UK)Coordinator of diploma programs, chairman of second-level committees (for example, pedagogical)
Universitair docent
1 and 2
Assistant professor (US), university lecturer (UK)Chairman or member of second-level committees

Here you can find information about working conditions and wages. It is worth noting that in the Netherlands there is a single salary system.

Ranks of professors at universities in the Netherlands:

RankInternational equivalentDescription
Job HoogleraarFull professorStandard Professor
Buitengewoon hoogleraarVisiting professor by special appointmentFor special research or teaching (part-time)

Bijzonder hoogleraar

Current position
(temporary, often
Sometimes assigned to the institute researcher, who has an honorary title at a university
University professorTemporary dismissal from teaching for research

The job classification system (UFO) for Dutch universities is available on the VSNU website for more information on professors' responsibilities.

Opportunity to work while studying

EU/EEA/Swiss nationals are allowed to work without any restrictions or additional requirements.

Non-EU citizens in turn can work while studying, but only with a special work permit (TWV). Working conditions for them are as follows:

  • During the semester — part-time, i.e. no more than 16 working hours per week;
  • On summer holidays from June to August — full time.

Additionally, insurance and, in some cases, a medical certificate are needed.

The peculiarity is that in the Netherlands the application for a work permit is submitted by the employer. He must do this at least 5 weeks before the employee begins their work. The application is free, but due to paperwork, many employers simply do not want to hire foreigners. Moreover, most jobs require fluency in the Dutch language, which hinders the employment of English-speaking students.

In this regard, the practice of illegal work is widespread in the country, when students get a job without official registration. In this case, the state does not guarantee the protection of the rights of such illegal workers. So, the employer who did not pay the salary will remain completely unpunished.

If the student has an internship, a work permit is not needed. Instead, the university and the employer must sign an internship agreement.

Foreigners are also allowed to do business while studying. To work on a self-employed basis, there are no restrictions on working hours and you do not need to get permission.

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Opportunity to stay and immigration to the Netherlands

EU nationals do not need a work permit to stay and work in the Netherlands after study. For non-EU graduates of Dutch universities, the government has introduced the Orientation Year program. It allows young professionals to stay in the country and look for work for 1 year after graduation. You can apply for the program, find out the nuances, and detailed information on the official website of the Immigration Service (IND).

Permission is issued after each completed training program or after each completed scientific research. That is, if you studied or conducted research twice, you have the right to apply for Orientation Year 2 times for each type of activity.

An application can be submitted within 3 years after graduation. This is convenient, as a student can start working at home or in another country and only then return to the Netherlands. Conditions for the applicant (any of three):

  • Complete an accredited bachelor’s or master’s program in the Netherlands;
  • Complete a doctoral program lasting at least 1 academic year (10 months);
  • Conduct research in the Netherlands.

The list is not full; here you can find other conditions.

The cost of the procedure is 190 USD. If you are currently residing in the Netherlands, an application is submitted online. For those who are abroad, an application is submitted in writing. IND makes a decision within 90 days. Here you can read the FAQ from the immigration office.

On getting employed and after the expiration of the residence permit, the immigrant submits documents for a work permit. The place of work must comply with the requirements of the Immigration Service. The approved companies are listed on the official website.

There are several types of work permits: Highly skilled migrant, EU Blue Card, Researcher within the meaning of Directive, Spiritual counselor, Employee in specific positions in art and culture, Employee of an international non-profit organization, and others. Detailed information can be found on the website of the immigration service.

Prospects and employment opportunities

Students have a chance to find work while still in training: for this, you need to contact the university’s career center, where the applicant will be given recommendations on further employment. Often, partner companies of universities are looking for personnel among graduates, so the most successful ones can be directly hired.

The unemployment rate in the Netherlands as of February 2020 is only 2.9%[7]. The country is among the top 20 richest in the world, and the main sectors are agriculture and food processing, creative industries (interior design, games, fashion, and architecture), chemicals, energy, high-tech systems and materials, gardening, science and healthcare, logistics and water management[8]. The most sought-after specialists are engineers, ICT and healthcare workers, and innovators in creative industries[9].

Dutch diplomas comply with the requirements of the Bologna Process and are valid in any EU country. Since the strengths of Dutch education are high technology, urban studies, and design, the chances of finding work in these areas in Europe are quite high. A diploma from a prestigious Dutch university will also open many doors to employment in non-EU countries.

Photographs of universities of the Netherlands

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