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Student grants did not give immediate access to universities

Two hundred years of student finance
04 November 2014

Next year, it will be exactly 200 years since the Dutch State started to allocate student grants. They were initially awarded on a very small scale, and not with the intention of making higher education accessible to people from poor backgrounds. It was not until after the Second World War that they became an effective means of assisting social mobility. In the 1980s, they also gave students independence from their parents. The historian Wouter Marchand has written a thesis entitled Onderwijs mogelijk maken. Twee eeuwen invloed van studiefinanciering op de toegankelijkheid van het onderwijs in Nederland (1815-2015) (Enabling education. The effect of two hundred years of student finance on access to higher education in the Netherlands (1815-2015)), in which he describes two hundred years of student finance. The research is right up-to-date, in view of the current debate about the loan system, which revokes the right to a basic grant acquired in the 1980s. Marchand will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 13 November.

Two hundred years ago, students from the lower and middle classes did not stand a chance of getting into higher education. The State’s decision to allocate a limited number of grants (a few dozen) to the Universities of Groningen, Leiden and Utrecht in 1815 did very little to change this. Most of the grants were allocated to offspring of the impoverished elite, young people who were ‘entitled’ to study. For a long time, allowing young people from lower social classes access to universities was not a goal in itself, concludes Marchand. ‘There have been many different objectives over the centuries, but it was not until 1919 that the law formulated accessibility as a concrete goal. In the years that followed, students from lower income brackets certainly enjoyed the benefits of student grants more than their wealthier counterparts, but even so, only a third of students at the most came from the middle classes during the first century of student finance. Students from the lower classes were virtually excluded from university, and student grants did nothing to increases their chances of getting in.’


Universities gradually became more accessible to the middle classes during the second hundred years. Surprisingly, nothing changed when grants were converted into interest-free advances between 1924 and the Second World War. The fact that the State could no longer afford to pay for student grants did not put people off studying. But this period should be used as a basis for drawing conclusions about the current loan system, says Marchand. ‘The size of universities and the career prospects at that time are far too different from those of today. Only five percent of students had a loan in those days, whereas almost everyone has one nowadays.’

Student wage

The social impact of student grants was not felt until after the war. Between 1949 and 1971, the proportion of students from the lower and middle classes grew from half to around two-thirds. The political goal also shifted. Marchand: ‘Students became more outspoken in the 1960s, demanding independence from their parents. They even discussed and held demonstrations advocating the introduction of a student wage. Although this never materialized, emancipation was an important motive for introducing basic student grants for all in 1986. To some extent, this was at the expense of the other goal. Students from poorer backgrounds suddenly realized that ‘wealthy’ fellow-students were now receiving the same grant as they were, apart from the loan part .’ This emancipation of young people is now at stake if the government introduces the loan system.

Curriculum vitae

Wouter Marchand (Stadskanaal, 1983) studied History at the University of Groningen. He carried out his research at the Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG), in the Faculty of Arts. His supervisors were Prof. M.G.J. Duijvendak and Dr R.F.J. Paping. The research was funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science and the Education Executive Agency (DUO), to mark 200 years of student finance in 2015.

Last modified:12 March 2020 9.49 p.m.
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