Admissions lotteries and equal access? Council of State sceptical about new legislation

Will an admissions lottery promote equal access to higher education? The Council of State isn’t expecting any miracles, as appears from sceptical comments published on the government’s plans.

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Last Friday, Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven sent new draft legislation to the House of Representatives. If Parliament gives its approval, programmes with a limited number of places will soon once again be able to choose first-year students by lottery.

We’ll have to wait and see what MPs think after the elections, but it looks like the lottery is back. A lottery is objective and helps create equal access to higher education, the government believes.

Fundamental critique

Is that really true, the Council of State asked rhetorically. Every piece of draft legislation has to pass this advising body first. Sometimes Council members only have a few editorial comments, but this time the government has received a fundamental critique.

Since 2013, numerus fixus programmes have not been allowed to use lotteries for student admissions selection. They’ve had to select first-year students based on at least two criteria, such as marks and motivation. The motto is: the right student in the right programme.

Resentment about lotteries began at the end of the last century when a brilliant student failed to be selected for medical school three times in a row. The method was then modified: secondary school pupils with an average grade of eight or higher were all admitted, and later on programmes were allowed to select a portion of their students manually.


Lotteries were ultimately abolished entirely in 2013. This obviously also drew criticism, because a good selection process is not straightforward. Furthermore, preformed judgments and cultural differences can lead to inequal application. Men do less well in selection procedures, and the same holds for students from non-Western backgrounds. The differences between the two systems are “minor, but persistent”, the Inspectorate of Education decided.

But can you solve these problems with an admissions lottery? For the ‘weighted’ lottery the Minister wants to set up, programmes will still have to work with at least two selection criteria, meaning some prospective students will have an advantage over others because of their high marks or strong motivation, for example.

An unweighted lottery is also an option, according to the Council of State, giving all applicants the same chance. But this conflicts with the desire to place the right student in the right programme. Doesn’t the government want to keep that as a guideline?

The Council of State has drawn the conclusion that if you want to put this draft legislation into practice, don’t say that it’s about equal access, because it’s not clear that it moves things in that direction.

Equal opportunity

Despite this criticism, equal opportunity of access is nonetheless the primary goal for the outgoing Minister, according to the explanatory notes to her draft bill. Lotteries will give programmes a new instrument for increasing equal access to numerus fixus programmes, she explains.

Lotteries will, moreover, only be allowed for Bachelor’s and AD programmes. Selection will thus remain in place for Master’s programmes. These seem to have fewer problems with accessibility is the government thinking here. The Council of State didn’t have any criticism of this.

And yet the difference is quite marked. In an ideal situation, admissions selection for Master’s programmes can improve accessibility, but in practice selection seems to disadvantage certain groups of students there too. There’s a good reason the Inspectorate of Education found that the explanations of the selection criteria for Master’s applicants were in need of further clarification.

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