Lottery system returns to higher education

A new law is being drafted to allow popular degree programmes to reintroduce a lottery system in addition to their existing selection procedures. Should weaker students be excluded from this system? Not according to Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf.

photo NikolayTsuguliev / iStock

Dijkgraaf spoke on the topic in the House of Representatives on Tuesday evening, during the debate on a legislative proposal that has been in the works for some time. The lottery system for higher education was abolished in 2017. At the time it was decided that chance should no longer play a role in the admissions procedures of degree programmes with limited places. Instead, students were to be selected on the basis of talent and motivation.

But in the near future, programmes will be able to select their students as they see fit. This means they can continue their current approach, and nothing will change, or use a lottery to make a selection from the total number of prospective students. If they prefer, they can also decide to give some students a better chance of being admitted than others, for example by taking their qualifications and motivation into account. Combining the two methods is also an option, for example by selecting the most suitable students first and then using the lottery system for everyone else.

No pushback

There was no pushback at all for the legislative proposal last night. Although the left-wing opposition parties are against selection in higher education and would prefer to rely solely on a lottery system, they consider the current proposal a step in the right direction.

Other parties, such as VVD and PVV believe selection is a fairer system than a lottery. But governing party VVD is also in favour of degree programmes being able to decide for themselves, and this freedom of choice is safeguarded in the current legislative proposal.

However, VVD, CDA and ChristenUnie jointly submitted an amendment to the proposal, in which they ask for slightly more options for degree programmes. This move is also backed by universities and university hospitals. The goal is to allow programmes not only to select the best candidates prior to the lottery, but also to have the option of rejecting the weakest. This would leave only average students to take part in the lottery.

Error in judgement

Minister Dijkgraaf is not a fan of this idea. “There’s an error in judgement that is easily made in this regard, one I used to make myself”, he told the House. “We tend to think of the student population as a bell curve, with a group of highly talented individuals you would happily admit without a second thought, and a group of lesser talents you would prefer to reject as easily as possible. But that’s not what a student population actually looks like.”

According to the minister, it is possible to distinguish a small group at the very top, but just below them is “a large number of students whose scores are slightly less impressive”. In his view, it is almost impossible to make a meaningful distinction within this group. “If you decide to cut off a section, you really have no idea who you are actually excluding. It is not a symmetrical situation.”

The minister also objects to this idea on principle. In the current selection system for programmes with restricted enrolment, students are given a ranking. This means that in theory anyone can be admitted if enough people at the top decide to drop out and choose another degree programme or take a gap year. Rejecting prospective students from the outset means that they no longer have any chance at all.

This objection did little to change the minds of the three governing parties responsible for submitting the amendment. The fourth governing party, D66, refused to back the amendment due to concerns that it will have an adverse effect on equal opportunity.

Equal opportunity

In the debate, the politicians mainly crossed swords with regard to the definition of terms such as equal opportunity and diversity. Is it a bad thing if certain groups of students are not selected as often as others?

Zohair El Yassini (VVD) doesn’t see the problem and wants effort and talent to be deciding factors in admission to programmes such as Medicine. “I have friends and acquaintances with a non-Western background who studied Medicine and went on to become doctors and surgeons”, he said. “I think that’s great. They are prime examples of the equal opportunity we are talking about.”

Left-wing parties in particular are less convinced by the selection procedures and fear that inequality will only increase as a result. They point out that it is easier for some students to obtain tutoring or help from their parents in writing a letter of motivation, for example. So what exactly is the selection based on?

Lisa Westerveld (GroenLinks) gave the example of a young person whose parents are doctors and who wants to study Medicine. “Compare them to a student who comes from a migrant family, where Dutch is not spoken at the same level. The first student generally has a better chance of being selected for the programme, but how much does that really say about their talent or whether they will go on to become a good doctor?”


The discussion is by no means over, especially in light of the highly critical report published by the Inspectorate of Education last Friday. Minister Dijkgraaf has promised to discuss the report’s findings at a later date. He says one of the conclusions is that “we need to enter into more frequent dialogue with institutes of higher education” on the wisdom of using lotteries and selection procedures.

If the proposal is adopted, the legislation will not come into effect until at least a year from now. The selection procedures for the ’23/’24 academic year are already underway. And of course the proposal also needs to gain the approval of the Senate.

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