Dijkgraaf recently announced his plans for the binding study advice (BSA). He would like degree programmes to soon apply a maximum of thirty credits as the threshold for being able to expel first-year students. After two years, students must have obtained at least sixty credits. This proposal will have a major impact on Erasmus University which, with its ‘Nominal is Normal’ programme and a binding study advice of sixty credits, has been the biggest advocate of a strict BSA for years.

‘Dramatically bad proposal’

Henk Schmidt, emeritus professor of Psychology, was at the cradle of the Nominal is Normal programme more than ten years ago. Schmidt was rector magnificus in Rotterdam at the time. He calls the minister’s proposal a ‘dramatically bad proposal’. “A binding study advice with thirty credits as the standard sends the wrong signal and is bad for students.”

“It may be enlightening to remember why the binding study advice was introduced in the first place.” Schmidt also points out that students spent an average of five years on a three-year bachelor’s programme before that time. “This is the same as spending an average of ten years on the Atheneum (preparatory scientific education).” In addition, diary research by Risbo on students in Rotterdam and Groningen showed that they only spent around three hours a day on their studies. “Studying seemed like something you do on the side, like a part-time job.”


The Rotterdam standard of sixty ECTS credits, with compensation options and a limited number of resits, led to far fewer first-year students experiencing study delays. At the same time, the dropout rate did not increase. Moreover, weaker students benefited the most.

Schmidt believes that the minister’s proposal will lead to far more students falling behind with their studies. “This is not without consequences. Each year of studying costs the actual student about 10,000 euros. In addition, falling behind is bad for a student’s self-image. Not to mention the extra costs for universities caused by additional resits, space and study advice.”

According to Schmidt, there is no evidence that the higher standard has led to more stress. “Psychology students, for example, were more satisfied with their degree programme than before the introduction of Nominal is Normal. And Rob Kickert showed for medical students that their confidence increased under the new exam rules.” He states that the coronavirus period may have led to more feelings of stress or depression in students, for example, but that a lower standard does not resolve this issue. “What is needed to combat this is better supervision, small-scale teaching, taking students out of their isolation, less distance learning and more joint learning.”

Performance pressure must be reduced

Minister Dijkgraaf’s main argument is that performance pressure must be reduced. Eveline Crone, professor of Developmental Neuroscience in Society, can relate to the proposal. “Over the past twenty years, young people have experienced more performance pressure. The pressure from parents, school and society has increased, with the best of intentions.”

In March, Crone and her colleagues from YoungXperts submitted a manifesto on performance pressure to the minister. “This increased pressure to perform gives us cause for concern, because young people need to be given the space to develop: to form their identity, to discover what suits them or which future prospects they can identify. Some students need more time for this than others. However, students who do not meet the binding study advice must also be given the opportunity to develop.”

‘Signal from the top’

The universities disagree with the minister and are defending the binding study advice, partly with the argument that students tend to experience it more often as positive than negative. “That’s true”, says Crone, “but 12 percent of students experience the binding study advice as negative, for example because of the stress it causes. That’s an awful lot of students.”

“Although the problem of performance pressure is recognised, the solutions are often put in the hands of young people themselves”, says Crone. “But students experience pressure as a result of what is happening in society, so it makes sense to tackle the causes there.” She thinks that the lowering of the binding study advice is an important systemic change. “It’s a signal from the top of the education sector that young people must be given more scope to grow and develop.”

Study progress

Rob Kickert also thinks that a lower binding study advice reduces the pressure. He was a study adviser when Nominal is Normal was introduced and obtained his doctorate in 2020 for his research into the system. “With the goal that the minister has in mind, namely reducing the performance pressure, I think this is an understandable measure. But it will have a negative effect on the study progress.” Is that a bad thing? “A strict binding study advice has positive effects on the study progress, without increasing the dropout rates. But is that the aim of studying?”

Nominal is Normal was introduced back when the universities reached ‘performance agreements’ with the then State Secretary Halbe Zijlstra. One of these agreements was about the return on investment. At the time, students spent an average of five years on a three-year bachelor’s degree. “If you hold the universities accountable, you will get these kinds of measures.”

Fear of tests

According to Kickert, a negative side effect of Nominal is Normal is that the importance of examinations has increased. Students focus strongly on what they have to know for the exam. “That’s very logical behaviour. The greater the importance, the higher the pressure to focus purely on the tests.” Among other things, his research shows that students feel more anxious about tests when the requirements are higher.

Kickert’s objection to Nominal is Normal stems from this test-related pressure. “As a result, we have started to do fewer things that are relatively difficult to test. Critical thinking and creativity are very hard to measure, for example, and judgements about this are also subjective. Asking about knowledge is ‘more objective’. But this provides a very narrow view of education.” Kickert therefore feels that although a lower binding study advice would reduce the pressure, better tests would do the same.

Nevertheless, he wonders whether a binding study advice of thirty credits is a good idea. “As a degree programme, I would seriously ask myself whether you want to work with a system like that.” For some students, research shows that a lower binding study advice has a demotivating effect. Students study towards the norm imposed on them, explains Kickert. So if the pass point is thirty credits, some of the students will start to take it easy once this level is reached. “The risk is that you give the message that thirty credits is enough.”

More stress

Medical students experienced more stress when the binding study advice was increased, says Andrea Woltman, director of the Institute of Medical Education Research Rotterdam and programme director of the Bachelor’s programme in Medicine. In 2014, when Nominal is Normal was introduced in Medicine, she started researching cortisol in the hair and the level of stress experienced by first-year students before and after the introduction of the binding study advice of sixty credits. In the case of the students who fell under Nominal is Normal, the level of stress experienced was significantly higher (cortisol levels remained the same).

“I don’t know whether this is also the case with other degree programmes”, says Woltman. “My hypothesis is that the stress associated with the binding study advice is greater for medical students. If you want to become a doctor, only one route is available to you: studying medicine. With other studies, you often have a less fixed profession in mind or could end up in the same profession via a different course of study.”

Medicine reduced the binding study advice to 45 credits three years after the introduction of Nominal is Normal. “Students made extensive use of the 1 February scheme1 if they did not pass their first exams. This allowed them to avoid a potentially negative binding study advice and start again a year later”, explains Woltman. This led to logistical problems, however, because instead of 410 first-year students there were suddenly 485 a year later. Nominal is Normal was intended to get students in the right place as quickly as possible, but that’s not how it worked out in Medicine. “We can also see, although this has not yet been published, that the stress experienced by students with a binding study advice of 45 credits is lower.”

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Advancement standard

“I welcome studying on schedule”, says Woltman. “But I don’t think it’s okay for us to send someone with 52 credits to a similar degree programme somewhere else in the country.” She is pleased that the minister is still leaving scope to expel students who have not obtained sixty credits after two years.

Woltman advocates that the binding study advice should not be regarded as an advancement standard. The bsa is the standard for sending someone away, the advancement standard determines, for example, whether someone needs more time to finish the first year or is allowed to continue to the second year. “I’m fine with not setting the standard for expelling someone too high, but I can’t imagine us saying in Medicine: thirty credits is enough to go through to your second year. If you set the bar too low, some students will start to take it easy as soon as they’ve reached it. Even though it’s easier to just keep pace with your programme.”

As far as Woltman is concerned, the standard for advancing to the second year must therefore be higher than thirty credits. “Once a student falls behind, it’s difficult to get back on track. With a higher advancement standard, or a compensation scheme that only applies only from a certain number of credits, for example, with feedback and good guidance you can also motivate students to study on schedule.”

'Stress will come later'

The rectors of the universities oppose the minister’s proposal. “I’m afraid it’s the wrong measure for a goal that we share”, says Rector Magnificus Annelien Bredenoord. “Everyone is in favour of improving student well-being and reducing performance pressure. But the proposal currently in place will not lead to less stress. It will just come later, in the second or third year.”

“Some of our students choose Erasmus University precisely because of the high binding study advice”, says the rector. She thinks that strict requirements, combined with good supervision and the possibility of compensating for the shortage of credits, actually reduce stress. “Students who start the second year with a clean slate know they are in the right place. Research shows that students who fall behind with their studies in the first year and are allowed to continue usually fail to catch up. And student finance doesn’t extend, so in the event of a dropout or delay, you will miss out on it.”

Bredenoord also points out the consequences for lecturers in terms of workload. “Lectures and tutorials will be fuller and the entire curriculum will need to be modified. This will increase stress levels among employees, even though we have invested a great deal in recent years to reduce the workload.”

  1. Students who unenrol before 1 February in the first year do not have to pay back their student finance and student public transport pass. ↩︎