Equal opportunity? Honors programs on track, minister says

Students whose parents had a lower level of education have a lower chance of being selected for honors programs in higher education. Minister Van Engelshoven finds this unfortunate, but there is little she can do about it. Cursor asked professor Mark Bentum, who was appointed dean of TU/e’s Honors Academy six months ago, whether he was surprised by this outcome.

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To be selected for an honors program, students must have higher grades and be able to demonstrate critical thinking, according to a study by Radboud University Nijmegen on a thousand students from three universities (Radboud, Maastricht and Twente) and two universities of applied sciences (HAN and Hanzehogeschool). And that is how it should be.

But the researchers discovered something else: students whose parents had a lower level of education were admitted to such programs less frequently. Lower family income also decreases the chance of selection.

Part-time jobs

This makes it impossible to speak of equal opportunity. Even when they have been admitted to programs of excellence, a student's bank account plays a role: part-time jobs make it harder to complete such programs.

Cursor asked Mark Bentum, dean of TU/e’s Honors Academy since July 2020, whether he is surprised by the outcome from this study. “I’ve heard about this study, but I haven’t read it yet. Here in Eindhoven, we never conducted research into this, and the aim of the Honors Academy is to be as inclusive as possible, irrespective of a student’s background. Be they of Dutch or foreign nationality, anyone who successfully completed the application procedure is welcome to take part in our honors programs.”

Van Bentum can imagine, however, that parents with a higher level of education are more likely to push their children to get the most out of their student years. “That’s because they were students once themselves, an experience that someone with a lower level of education doesn’t have."

The PvdA asked Minister Van Engelshoven questions: what does she think about this?

Her answers were three pronged: the minister thought it was “not right”, but people are working on it and ultimately educational institutions decide themselves how students are selected.

So just like the PvdA – and probably all the other political parties – the minster thinks that students whose parents did not attend post-secondary education “should have an opportunity to further develop their talents”.


But she thinks that the research findings reconfirm the government's strategy. Starting in 2015, these programs have aimed at “more attention to diversity and wider accessibility”. Now not only high grades but also motivation and student background form part of admissions requirements.

She therefore concludes that programmes are on the right track. Moreover, a special group of experts is being set up to look at the accessibility of higher education, and in the meantime institutions are working to improve their methods of selection.

Thus, the minister doesn't need to take any action right now, in her own opinion. She hopes universities will develop sensible policies. “Each individual institution is responsible for deciding which factors and method of selection it uses.”

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