The introduction of the student loan system was not without its struggles. One of the fears of its opponents and student unions was that the student loan system would prove detrimental to first generation students. The Minster of Education decided to investigate whether this fear was founded. Did the student loan system in fact reduce the opportunities available to first generation students?

ResearchNed on behalf of the Ministry investigated the effects of policy measures in the higher education sector over the past ten years in terms of student study programmes, study behaviour and borrowing behaviour. The 2015 Policy Measures Monitor Report presented this April contains the findings.

The report shows that the direct influx from the secondary education sector and the secondary professional education sector to the higher education sector declined from 71 to 64 per cent in 2015. This decline in the influx of students was to be expected according to Jet Bussemaker, Minister of Education, Culture and Science. One explanation is that in 2014/2015 the group of students, who would normally take a gap year after their final examination, in large numbers decided to continue their education to enable them to still make use of the right to student financing. This student influx disappeared in 2015/2016. According to the calculations performed by the Association of Universities of Applied Sciences this is only part of the explanation, however. The other causes are anyone’s guess.

False Start

However, the drop in the total student influx was not the most important topic for discussion to emerge from this study. It was the drop in the influx of first generation students. With this drop, student unions and opposition parties in the House of Representative saw their fears become a reality: first generation students are victims of the student loan system. The study conducted by ResearchNed furthermore shows that this is further exacerbated by the fact that students whose parents did not study already are at a disadvantage in relation to others. At all levels of education, the principle that applies is that as parental income increases, the probability of graduation also increases and the dropout risk declines. Parental income in this respect is not only determined on the basis of money, but also by the disposition and cultural capital a student receives in his or her home environment.

Sulayman Mensouri
Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

Sulayman Mensouri (22), Economics and Business economics

“What are the career advancement opportunities?” was the first question my parents asked me, when I told them I wanted to study economics. They are very proud of the fact that I am the first person in the family to go to university. They support my choice. Just like any other parents, they simply want the best for their child.

During my secondary education I simply enjoyed economics as a subject. I thought that by following this line of study, I would be able to get a well-paid job. Perhaps not a well-considered way of making a choice, but I am still happy with my decision. The study programme is interesting and I now see that economics involves more than just figures and efficiency. I found out that I like working with others; a job as a consultant or advisor appeals to me.

As a consultant, I must be able to explain economic processes in easy to understand ways. I use my parents to exercise my skills in this area. On the basis of the subject matter that I have learned, I explain to my parents why, for example, a country prints more money when it is in an economic crisis. This way my parents support me and I consider that sufficient. You have no control over where you are born, that is simply how it is.

I am quite happy that I was born in Netherlands. If you really want to, you can always study here. Your background barely plays a role in this respect. I made the step to go to university on my own. I figured everything out myself, from study programme to student quarters. I do not view this as a negative thing. I have myself to thank for everything that I have now achieved. I am proud of this.”

Just after the publication of the study, the National Student Union, the Dutch National Student Association (DNSA) and FNV Young sent an incendiary letter to the Minister in which they expressed their concern about this decline and offered specific solutions. For example, they proposed the abolition of pre-enrolment selection. The chances of first generation students making it through the selection process are lower, or they do not register due to the pre-selection process, the interest groups suggested. In this respect they point to international research that shows that even well-performing students from lower income brackets avoid selective education.

In an interview with the Higher Education Press Agency, Bussemaker indicated that for the time being she does not view the decline in first generation students as a major problem. “The population is becoming increasingly better educated. That means that there are simply fewer students whose parents did not complete a higher education programme. This trend has been evident for some time.”

The introduction of the student loan system was not without its struggles. One of the fears of its opponents and student unions was that the student loan system would prove detrimental to first generation students. The Minster of Education decided to investigate whether this fear was founded. Did the student loan system in fact reduce the opportunities available to first generation students?

First Generation Students at EUR

For the time being, Bussemaker is not allowing the figures to throw her off-track. But what is the situation at Erasmus University Rotterdam? According to the ITS research firm, two thirds of the students on campus here are first generation students. However, unlike the research conducted by ResearchNed, only parents with a university education are counted as having a higher education. What the percentage of first generation students would be if you also counted parents with a university of applied sciences degree as having a higher education is not known.

In any case, according to Gerard Hogendoorn, EUR does not yet foresee any problems with the decline in first generation students. Hogendoorn is Coordinator Pre-university Education Interface with Academic Education. “Following the publication of the study findings I canvassed the school deans asking them if the findings reflect the profile of their students. The deans detect no or barely any reduction in the level of interest in university education on the basis of the student loan system,” says Hogendoorn.

Wei Wha Xu
Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

Wei Wha Xu (20) International bachelor Communication and Media

“My mother is a cleaner in a restaurant and my father is a cook. They did not study, but that was not an option for me and my brother. I was expected to go to university. Studying is very important in my family. All my cousins are also studying at a university of applied sciences or a university.

Sometimes I feel the pressure to keep up my family’s ‘honour’ and to complete my studies as fast and as successfully as possible. On the other hand, I try not to be too concerned and not let myself be driven by my family’s expectations.

I chose my own study programme. I only went to open house days and I went through all of the education brochures on my own. Once I had made my decision, I discussed it with my parents. They primarily wanted to know if I stood by my decision. When I responded in the affirmative, they were happy for me.

My parents help me where possible. I do not see it as a problem that they did not study. The support of your parents goes beyond financial support. When I moved, they helped me. And that is just as important to me.”


‘Talent more important than origin’

This does not mean that EUR does not provide any consideration to potential future changes. For example, the university recently hired Hanneke Takkenberg as Chief Diversity Officer. Her task is to develop a university-wide diversity policy. Cultural diversity is one of the priorities in this policy. Currently, there are no concrete plans specifically focussed on accessibility for first generation students.

“Our adage is that the student population should be a reflection of society”

Gerard Hogendoorn

“Our adage is that the student population should be a reflection of society, says Hogendoorn. “A person’s talent is more important to us than his/her origin. We are not going to base our selection on origin, in a positive or a negative sense.

In recent years, the university did implement a number of measures for all (prospective) students, to prevent dropout. For example, Erasmus School of Law’s Pre-academic Programme for students enrolling in Law, Tax Law, Criminology or EUR’s master’s programme.

During this summer course, future students attend lectures and workshops, and are given assignments that cover a range of topics, such as personal leadership, effective studying methods and familiarisation with the university. This is producing very positive results. “The student population participating in these courses is almost one-to-one comparable to the ultimate group of first year law students in terms of background. We are observing that a higher percentage of students who participated in the Pre-Academic Programme successfully complete their first year sooner and in addition on average score one point higher on their examinations,” Hogendoorn explains. For the time being the Law Faculty is the only faculty to offer this programme.

Rosy Future

It looks as if the decline in the influx of students into higher education is stopping next year. Universities received 11 per cent more registrations prior to 1 May than last year. This increase is primarily due to a growth of 28 per cent in foreign registrations, while the growth in the registration of Dutch students was 6 per cent. What will be left of this remains to be seen each year, since prospective students can register for a maximum of four education programmes, they could fail their final examination or they may decide to take a gap year. Whether the decline in first generation students will continue to persist or not can therefore only be answered a year from now.