What is cum laude?

It is a notation on the diploma of a student who has performed excellently. Getting high grades, that’s where it starts. But what is high enough? It varies from course to course and from institution to institution.

Some university programmes are satisfied with an average of a 7.5. Others demand an eight or higher. And do resits count? Opinions differ on that too. Universities of applied sciences often use the same rules for all their programmes but it can vary from one institution to another.

Do employers look at ‘cum laude’?

A good grade list does seem to have some influence on salary after graduation. In highly competitive work fields, a cum laude can give you a slight edge over the rest, such as in the competition for scarce training places for medical specialists. You might also get a spot in a PhD program faster if you graduated cum laude.

What do medical schools have against cum laude?

The UMCs in Utrecht, Maastricht, and Rotterdam are considering stopping with the use of cum laude, following the example of VU University Amsterdam, a roundup by newspaper Trouw revealed this summer. The system would only aggravate the already high levels of performance pressure among students.

Pim den Boon of the interest group De Geneeskundestudent sees cum laude as a symbol of slipping performance pressure. Den Boon says: “In medicine, the extremes become immediately apparent. It already starts with the selection. The programmes pick out a type of student who is already preoccupied with performing well from the start. Combine that with often heavy practical placements and the uncertainty of subjective assessments of internships and you get a very tight straitjacket that the student has to squeeze into.”

What about cum laude in PhDs?

There is now considerable debate about that too. This is partly due to a study by sociologist Thijs Bol of the University of Amsterdam. It showed that at an unnamed university, men turned out to achieve cum laude twice as often as women. Bol: “In PhDs, a small group of scientists get together and examine a thesis. This is a big difference from cum laude in an undergraduate programme: there is only one exam period. In science, we have figured out that only five per cent of PhD students should receive cum laude, but the definition of who is excellent is very subjective. Precisely because it is one single subjective assessment, I think it is better to abolish it.”

What about in other fields of study?

The Dutch National Student Association (Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg) doesn’t think the use of cum laude makes much sense there either. The learning process should be the focus, not performance, board member Jorgen Blom believes. There has been criticism from university representative bodies or some time, according to him. “We should try to reduce the stress factors for students in all fields of higher education, and abolishing cum laude is part of that. Of course, you can strive for high grades as a student, but the predicate cum laude increases the pressure at a time when we need to get rid of just that.”

In higher education, the discussion seems to be somewhat less prevalent. Students there are less concerned with cum laude, but colleges do like to put students who graduate cum laude in the limelight.