Government apologises for discrimination by DUO in fraud detection

Checks for fraud with the basic student grant did involve indirect discrimination, says a report on the practices of the Education Executive Agency (DUO). The government apologises.

photo NicoElNino / iStock

“This shouldn’t have happened”, says outgoing Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf today. He wants to talk to students who were checked to see what the effect of the home visits have been.

DUO’s fraud inspectors mainly targeted students with a migration background, an investigation by the Higher Education Press Agency (HOP), Investico and NOSop3 revealed last year. What’s more, DUO often based its decisions on dubious evidence.

Now, eight months later, the government apologises for the indirect discrimination. Things must be improved in future, says Dijkgraaf. The minister doesn’t want to go into possible compensation yet.


Students who leave home receive a higher basic student grant than those living with their parents. The difference amounts to approximately two thousand euros a year. That’s why some commit fraud: they’re actually still living with their parents, but they register at a different address.

This reportedly costs the treasury a few dozen million euros each year, then State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra calculated in 2011. The government must do a better job combating abuse of the grant, was the political consensus at the time.

Risk profiles

DUO used ‘risk profiles’ to identify suspicious students: where are they registered, where do their parents live, are they perhaps studying at the senior secondary vocational education (MBO) level? The latter also came into play.

Those profiles caused students with a non-western migration background in particular to pop up on the radar. In 98 percent of all court cases about the reclamation of the basic student grant, students with a migration background faced off with DUO. The inspectors made a lot of mistakes: the students won one in four cases.


The news was a big blow for DUO and the ministry of Education. Minister Dijkgraaf decommissioned the risk profiles right away. DUO was to work with a ‘random’ sample, where all students are equally likely to be checked.

The PwC report that Dijkgraaf sent to the House of Representatives today confirms the indirect discrimination. The process must be improved, the minister believes. He terms it “worrying” that no evaluations have taken place for such a long time.

No alarm bells

The alarm bells could have rung much earlier. In 2010 it was known already that DUO employees mainly selected MBO students “with a non-Dutch-sounding last name” for a home visit, the report reads. “This knowledge did not lead to further exploration of the risk profile, nor to adaptation of the model.”

A few years later, DUO also sees “a certain bias” in the reports by external inspectors who carry out home visits with the students. The check is also said to be “too strict”. It would appear nothing was done with this information.

Home visits

The journalistic investigation revealed sizeable problems with the home visits and the neighbourhood surveys, on which DUO ultimately bases its decision to reclaim a basic student grant. Talks with the neighbours turned out to be vague (and impossible to correct afterwards) and when conducting the actual home visits, the inspectors didn’t always account for cultural differences, language barriers and other deviating circumstances.

As of June 2023, all home visits have been evaluated, the ministry writes in a press release. But did they go well in the past? PwC hasn’t investigated any individual cases yet.

So the report does not say how often a home visit went wrong. “Right now we don’t have any indications that people wrongfully received reclamations”, Dijkgraaf says in an explanation, “but this report didn’t look at things on a case-to-case basis”.

Burden of proof

Another problem is the reversed burden of proof. DUO only needs to demonstrate the probability of fraud, which requires less hard evidence than a conviction for, say, theft. The student, on the other hand, must submit hard evidence to refute the suspicion, which they don’t always manage. In case of doubt, students often lose out.

Last year, PvdA-GroenLinks petitioned to re-assign the burden of proof to DUO. This went too far for Dijkgraaf, he said back then. “I want to go by the book, so first the investigation and then see if the policy also needs adjusting.” He hasn’t said anything about the matter this time around either.

The same goes for PwC, but the ministry will have to take another look at the checks. PwC recommends safeguarding “the correctness, accuracy and completeness of the assessment in all steps”, so there’s no discrimination.

“Should never have happened”

The Dutch National Students’ Association (ISO) says the apologies by the minister are “entirely justified” and is curious as to whether the government wants to provide compensation. “Because it’s clear that this should never have happened”, says ISO president Demi Janssen. “It can’t be that your migration background or age determine whether or not you’re checked by DUO.”

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