Earlier this spring, the outgoing cabinet apologised for student finance agency DUO’s ‘indirect discrimination’ in tackling abuse of the basic grant for students living away from home.

These apologies followed the scathing conclusions drawn by PwC, which confirmed the outcome of a journalistic investigation: it is indeed striking how often DUO’s fraud investigators target students with a migration background.

But hard figures on the migration background of students weren’t available. Everything was done based on last names and assessments. Now, statistics agency CBS has shared data on this with Algorithm Audit, a foundation that gives advice on the use of algorithms.

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'Even more pronounced'

The outcome: things were even a bit worse than expected. This new investigation ‘suggests that the bias was even more pronounced than we thought’, writes Minister Dijkgraaf in a cover letter to the House of Representatives.

DUO used an algorithm for the initial screening of suspicious students. In this ‘risk profile’, level of studies, age and distance to the elderly home played a role. This means an 18-year-old secondary vocational student living around the corner from their parents was quicker to appear on the radar than a 22-year-old university student who had moved to the other side of the country. This algorithm was twice as likely to label students with a non-European migration background as ‘high risk’ than students of Dutch descent, given that the former tend to live closer to their parents after moving out.

After this, DUO’s fraud investigators would go through the social media and other details of students. They would investigate, for example, who else was living at the listed address: family members, perhaps? Subsequently, the group with a migration background was manually selected for a home visit 6.2 times more often than the rest.

What’s more, even within the low-risk group these students were 1.8 times more likely to be selected for a home visit.

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In his letter to the House, Dijkgraaf writes: “These are lamentable findings, which once again make it clear that we must and will change the monitoring process.”

Incidentally, CBS notes that it’s not able to look inside the heads of the civil servants involved and is therefore not in a position to know whether they themselves had prejudices: “Bias can also stem from the nature of the work instructions, such as excluding student homes from home visits, or other institutional causes.”

The fairness of the inspections themselves cannot be derived from the figures, so CBS isn’t saying anything about this. One of the problems is that DUO doesn’t need hard evidence to take away the basic student grant from a student or fine them. Sometimes, all that is required is a few talks with the neighbours.

Nonetheless, DUO lost one in four court cases started by students. Nearly everyone who started a court case turned out to have a migration background.

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