Dutch Politics 101: Student Debt & Loans

By Helena Reinders

Like many countries, the Netherlands has its own rules and regulations regarding studies and student debt. Between 2012 and 2021 several things have changed within this system, causing a recent stir with the latest change  in the student loan system. The aim of this article is to explain all changes to those who are not accustomed with the Dutch student debt and loan systems, as well as explain the reasoning behind soon to come student demonstrations. To do so, I will first explain the Dutch education system, as well as how it is connected to differences in loans and grants over time. 

The Dutch Education System

Before diving into the financing of studies, it is important to take a look at the Dutch educatione system as a whole. After elementary school, students typically progress to high school at the age of 12. Depending on grades, teachers’ advice, and the results of the final tests (called the Cito toets) the students are then categorized into roughly four levels of secondary education: Basis, VMBO, Havo, and VWO. These levels range from more practical-oriented studies to more theoretical-oriented studies, with students from Basis and VMBO receiving admission into an MBO level (middelbaar beroepsonderwijs, literally, “middle-level vocational education”) and with students from Havo and VWO receiving admission into college and university respectively. Between the levels of Basis and VMBO are several smaller divisions, such as VMBO-Kader and Practical schools, but these all end up providing an admission into one of the MBO levels (which range from 1 to 4). Generally, Basis and VBMO education requires 4 years, Havo 5 years, and VWO 6 years to complete. Underneath you can find a small overview of the Dutch educational system, which will be important in explaining the differences in financing between the different types of higher education.

*Note: MBO level 1 requires no previous education, Level 2 requires Basis, Levels 3 and 4 require higher than Basis

Compulsory Education & Student Financing

The reason that understanding these different forms of higher education is important is because there is a difference in rules and regulations between MBO on the one hand and HBO/University on the other. Dutch citizens are subjected to compulsory education between the ages of 5 and 16, followed by a ‘qualification obligation’ until the age of 18. Students that have graduated an MBO, Havo, or VWO education qualify as sufficient education to be able to enter the job market, a regulation that has been in place since 1969 to prevent school drop-out.  The current government is looking to extend this obligation to the age of 21. 

You might wonder, why does this matter for student debt? Well the answer is quite simple: students with a diploma or certificate that is high enough to exempt the students in question from the qualification obligation get less money from the government while attending higher education. Between 1989 and 2015 students from MBO, HBO, and University received a basic grant (basis beurs), which every student received and did not have to pay back, under the condition of graduation within 10 years of starting their study. This basic grant existed of about 100 euro per month for students living at home, and about 280 euro per month for the ones living on their own. On top of this basic grant there is a supplementary grant for students whose parents have a low income, which can range anywhere from no money per month to around 450 euro per month depending on the income of the parents. 

To the dismay of many students, the coalition agreement of 2012 stated that the government aimed at replacing the basic grant with a loan system for students of HBO or University level and higher. This was implemented per study year 2015/2016, meaning that students who started their studies from that year onward missed out on about 14.000 euro in grants per study year. The coalition agreement of 2021 , however, has stated that ‘all citizens should be enabled to study, regardless of their parents’ income’ and therefore the basic grant system will be reinstalled per study year 2023/2024. Under both of these changes students continued to receive some form of supplementary grant if their parents earned less than 30.000 euro per year. 

The Middle Generation

Despite students being relieved about the reinstallment of the basic grant, there is a problem: what will happen to the ‘middle generation’, the students that studied between 2015 and 2023? Well, the government has got quite the plan for that. Students who studied during the time of the short-lived loan system will be compensated using 1 billion euro, which divided amongst all students means every student will get about 1.000 euro compensation. Next to this students can receive a 2.000 euro study voucher (which is incredibly helpful after having finished a study). Compared to the 14.000 euro that students would have received per year under the basic grant system, this one-time one thousand euro compensation has caused quite the stir. Students and Unions have called for better compensation and protests, the first of which is currently planned to take place on February 5th in Amsterdam. 

Within parliament the current compensation plans also did not receive a warm welcome, with the opposition parties calling for better compensation, as well as a swift reinstallment of the old grant system. A motion to compensate students for the full amount that they missed out on during their studies, which was put forward by parties BIJ1, BBB, Volt, The Party for the Animals (Dutch: Partij voor de Dieren), and Fraction Den Haan, has been declined. Underneath you can view the motion (in Dutch) and who voted in favor and against (pictures from instagram, @studentenprotest).

What’s Next?The discussions regarding current student debt and compensations for missed grants are likely to continue on for a while. With almost the full opposition united against the unfair compensation that is currently in the coalition agreement, students are feeling justified in their anger and incomprehension. The coalition (VVD, D66, CU, CDA) does hold a majority vote in the house of representatives, but not in the senate. This means that several options are still open, and currently neither side seems likely to back down any time soon. Unfortunately, only time will be able to tell what will happen next and what financial fate lies for the unfortunate students in the middle of it all. With student debt having a major impact on students, both practically – such as impacting their decision to study- as well as emotionally, the outcome of this political debate has major consequences across society and will no doubt be followed closely by many.

Edited by Arianna Pearlstein, artwork by Maria Beckers