A steady decline, but more Dutch people in higher education than ever: A ‘new norm’?

The Netherlands has more people in higher education than ever before, whilst numbers in lower education have declined. These are the recent findings of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, based on the recent labour force survey (EBB), which looked at levels of education completed by the Dutch population aged 15 to 75 in 2021. The trend of an increasingly highly educated country has been going on for a while, as has debate about whether this is a good or a bad thing.

In 2006, when the number of highly educated people was much lower, a government target was set for half of the Dutch working population to have a university diploma by 2020, and the report shows how things have changed since. The share of the pie of those that had completed the highest level of master’s degree (HBO or WO) or a doctorate has according to the OCW grown surely and steadily over the past ten years to 13%. The group of those that had completed a bachelor’s degree, which is slightly lower in the scale but still falls under higher education, also increased during this period to 22%.

In contrast, the group of people who had only completed primary education programme has shrunk since 2012, with only 8% in 2021, while those who have only completed vmbo or the lower grades of havo and vwo stood at 18%. Meanwhile the middle category, consisting of the remaining education degrees (those who have completed havo, vwo or mbo levels 2, 3 or 4) continued to form the largest group at 38%.

As a reason for the drive towards higher education it is stated that jobs are getting more complicated and thus need a higher-educated workforce. Therefore, experts called the new situation the norm. It is also assumed this trend will continue in the future, and that the younger generation will also be choosing a path of higher education in anticipation.

The art of self-branding
What the future holds for higher-educated individuals entering the labour market remains to be seen. Some experts are suggesting it should not be a given that higher-educated people will automatically end up with good job prospects and higher salaries. Indeed, highly educated people are increasingly finding themselves in a precarious situation and having to look for ways to stand out. As Dutch company AFAS – in 2016 named ‘Best employer in the Netherlands and Europe’ in a survey by Great Place To Work ─ pointed out, it notices that more and more of highly educated people in the Netherlands have to learn the art of self-branding.

On the other hand, it is also thought that despite their growing number, people who are highly educated are still more in demand, and that their skills and knowledge remain highly sought after. The question remains, of course, as Leiden University newspaper Mare asked, whether people have become smarter, or whether standards of education have decreased. The article pointed to the International Student Assessment (PISA) studies, which has revealed a declining trend for education standards in the Netherlands for years.

The bigger picture
Looking at the bigger picture, some say a high number of highly educated people is a good thing for a country’s levels of innovation and knowledge economy. In 2020, American business magazine Forbes called the Netherlands a ‘higher education powerhouse’. In 2016, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report (GCR), which values education as one of the pillars for long term prosperity of a country, praised the Netherlands as ‘third most educated nation in the world’.

However, others say a country needs more practically-trained people such as bus drivers, builders and carers to keep the country functioning, especially as many such ‘practical’ jobs now experience staff shortages. There has been talk about more options for learning on the job, such as more flexible training options for vocationally-guided learning paths, which consists of four days’ work and one day study.

Meanwhile, the terms ‘lower’ and ‘higher’ have also sparked great controversy, especially since Dutch columnist Marianne Zwagerman in 2018 called it demeaning to speak of ‘lower’ education. In Dutch media as well as in the House of Representatives, there is a move towards designations such as ‘practical’, ‘theoretical’ or ‘university’ education.

Written by Femke van Iperen