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‘Discouraging the Master’s degree is not a good idea’

Minister Plasterk of Education is contemplating making it less attractive to follow a Master’s degree. In his opinion, you will have no problems in the labour market with just a Bachelor’s degree. A very ill-thought-out statement, in the opinion of Robert Wagenaar, Director of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Groningen. ‘It’s the very highly educated people we need to keep this country going. A degree programme lasting three years is simply not enough content.’

Wagenaar: ‘Minister Plasterk’s mistake is taking the Anglo-Saxon educational system as the example. That comparison does not hold water. The educational system in the Netherlands has a two-tier design and a continental orientation and is much more similar to the systems in, for example, Germany, Norway or Finland than those in The UK or US. Plasterk is comparing apples and pears. You wonder whether he really researched the subject properly before presenting this plan.’

Wide approach

When the Bologna system was introduced in 2002, the choice was made for a wide approach to the Bachelor’s degree programmes. An important reason behind this decision was to reduce the drop-out figures. By dividing the higher education programmes into separate parts, more people would have a chance to find a place in the labour market that matched their level of education. That included people without a specialization but with a Bachelor’s degree. That is ideal for people who are less suited to going on to a Master’s degree.

Knowledge economy

Seventy to eighty percent of students do actually move on to a Master’s degree. ‘Quite right too, because we’ll always need true specialists’, according to Wagenaar. That is crucial for both industry and the educational sector. We are constantly talking about the knowledge economy, but then you have to be willing to invest in it too. A three-year Bachelor’s degree programme is simply not enough. On top of this, our Master’s degree programmes are usually shorter than in any other European country. We have to watch out that our knowledge levels, in terms of both quality and numbers of graduates, do not fall short of those of other industrialized countries. That would be a disaster for our prosperity.’

Socially responsible

The starting point must be what is socially responsible, not what saves you the most money, in Wagenaar’s opinion: ‘It’s wrong just to look at what someone with a Master’s degree will earn later. On that basis Minister Plasterk now thinks that they can pay for their own Master’s degree. But for a large number of degree programmes it’s just not true that you’ll earn more with a Master’s degree. Removing the student grant is bad for motivation. And that’s something we absolutely cannot permit.’


By converting grants for Master’s students into loans and increasing the tuition fees for Master’s degrees, a system that was introduced as a solution for the high drop-out rates is suddenly converted into an easy way to make cuts. Wagenaar: ‘A Bachelor’s degree as the final station could work, but only if business and institutions take it upon themselves to train graduates further to become specialists in their field.’ That’s a forlorn hope, in Wagenaar’s view. ‘The responsibility for good training lies primarily with the government and the educational institutes, not with business. Our entire educational system is built on that premise.’

Curriculum Vitae

Robert Wagenaar (1956) is Director of Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies at the Faculty of Arts of the RUG. He is a historian and one of the coordinators of the large-scale Tuning Educational Structures in Europe project, which is aiming for mutual attuning of higher education on the basis of diversity and autonomy.

Contact: drs. R. Wagenaar

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.10 p.m.
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