Skip To Main Content

Why British students should go Dutch

30 October 2016, The Sunday Times​ Education Blog

Dutch universities are worth considering, says Joe Spence

We’ve held a week of meetings for Year 11 and 12 pupils and their parents, from Dulwich and other local schools, on the destinations they might aspire to after A levels (or the International Baccalaureate). They revealed a plethora of opportunities. The art is to ensure that the right options are explored by the right pupils.

“Going Dutch” is a path worth exploring from year 9, so we brought our week of higher education meetings to a conclusion with a session with representatives of seven Dutch universities and university colleges — all on a par with Russell Group universities — that offer undergraduate courses in English. It built on a visit I had made to Holland, along with our director of university admissions, a month earlier.

We went over because we wanted to ensure that we had a nuanced view of all that is on offer in Holland. We returned convinced that there are many good reasons to study at a Dutch university, including the nature of the courses on offer, the quality of teaching, the excellence of the wider student experience, their proud internationalism and their relatively low fees.

There is a wide range of English-language courses available. Each of the eight university colleges is different in size, ethos and specialism. The older Dutch universities are also adding to the courses offered in English — and these are not all US-style liberal arts degrees.

For example, while Leiden University College, in The Hague, concentrates on the political sciences and on providing its students with global challenges, utilising the presence in the city of so many international political and administrative agencies, Leiden University itself offers a number of courses in English: nine at present, with archaeology among the latest to be launched.

At a time when some of the most renowned British universities are being criticised for the quality of their teaching, Dutch universities regard good teaching, regularly assessed, as an expectation, and are to be found within the top 200 in international university league tables.

Pride in the quality of the student experience was evident throughout a country whose government values both education and its student population, backing this up with generous loans, rent rebates and free travel at weekends. Many students in Holland work for longer than three years on their degrees, taking time out for work or travel. It makes for a mature and diverse student body.

The internationalism of all Dutch universities is a given. How could this not be, for as one admissions tutor put it: “There is an awful lot of ‘abroad’ around Holland; we embrace that, and our neighbours feel at ease in our company as a result.” Many young people in post-Brexit Britain are looking for ways to lay claim to being European. Studying on the continent is one way of doing this.

But the foreignness of Holland shouldn’t be overstated, with English speakers seemingly everywhere — although British students might want to learn some Dutch as a courtesy.

Finally, undergraduate study at Dutch universities is relatively inexpensive and may remain so. Basic university fees next year will be around €2,000 (£1,800) per annum— a figure guaranteed for a few years yet. Whether British students after that period will qualify as students of the European Economic Area (like Norwegians), or as foreign students, will depend on whether we have a hard or a soft Brexit.

The drawbacks? Dutch university colleges won’t suit every student. Some are very small (500-750 students), fully residential and offer a boarding school-like experience. There may be some disadvantages to studying in “a close-knit and ambitious academic and social community with its own beautiful campus”. And, for better or for worse, according to what sort of student you are, the Dutch put an emphasis on continuous assessment rather than final exams.

Furthermore, as many as 30% of students may not go beyond the first year. The threshold for entry may appear low, but there is what is euphemistically called “selection after the gate”: an expectation that many students will not be able to keep up and will leave. The emphasis, therefore, is on working hard from the time of arrival.

The Dutch aspire to be lifelong learners. It was inspiring to spend time in their universities. It was exhilarating to find first-year students already talking of what they were going to study for their masters (doing a masters is a given in Holland). You learn how to be a student as an undergraduate and then you deepen your knowledge of a chosen field. That’s what it is to be properly educated.

For more information on Dutch universities and university colleges, see

Dr Joe Spence

The Sunday Times Education Blog
Why British students should go Dutch

Discover More