The loan system does not have to be harmful to first-generation students, suggests Mary Tupan-Wenno, Chairperson of the ECHO national expertise centre for diversity policy. “What really holds students back from deciding to study is the lack of information about the loan system.”

The introduction of the loan system generated considerable resistance among the Netherlands’ opposition parties and student interests organisations. The parties feared that introducing the loan system would be detrimental to first-generation students (students with poorly-educated or uneducated parents). This motivated Education Minister Jet Bussemaker to launch an investigation. It showed that the direct influx into higher education from secondary and intermediate vocational education dropped in 2015 from 71 to 64 per cent. It also appeared that the percentage of first-generation students declined from 43 to 38 per cent.

‘In the US, the loan system is also not a problem for first-generation students’

In the view of its opponents, the decline shows that the loan system is preventing students from studying. Mary Tupan-Wenno is not convinced. “Look at the United States. There too you have students with parents who were not born in the US, and students whose parents did not study. Yet this group still manages to find its way into the universities.”

The real problem, believes Tupan-Wenno, is the scarcity of information about taking out a loan. “In the Netherlands it’s mainly the disadvantages of the loan which are emphasised, while we should in fact be talking about the opportunities studying offers you. Let potential students know what opportunities they will gain if they study.” The lack of information is also a reason why first-generation students have more difficulty getting through the selection process. “Selections are no more difficult in the Netherlands than in the United States. The difference lies in the way students are informed.”

‘EUR sends a positive signal’

Tupan-Wenno feels positive about the information provided by Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam. “The EUR regularly despatches information officials to secondary schools. That sends the signal that studying is a possibility for everyone. And that’s important, particularly for first-generation students. They’re not always aware at home that studying is an option. If you have to start finding out everything for yourself as a teenager, that can be fairly daunting.”

That the EUR motivates potential students is good, but encouraging them to study needs to happen right from their early years, says Tupan-Wenno. “It’s a question of upbringing, not just by the parents, but by everyone in their environment.”

Read more about the research into the loan system in the magazine edition .