The basics
THE Netherlands: Applying to University - Must read

The Dutch higher education system...simplified

Our overview of the Higher Education System in the Netherlands for international students


Amidst seas of tall, blond heads and the incessant chirp of bicycle bells, higher education institutions in the Netherlands offer the highest rate of English-taught programmes in continental Europe. With globally regarded study programmes and a diverse expat population that hails from over 190 countries, the Dutch study abroad experience is a much sought-after choice for international students. Getting your head around the nation’s unique higher education system however can seem a bit of a struggle. But not to worry: we’ve broken down the basics of the Dutch higher education system so that you can get your study abroad planning process on the road.


Types of institution

Following the 2002 Bologna agreement, Dutch higher education is based on a three-cycle degree system that distinguishes between Bachelor, Masters and PhD programmes. Tertiary programmes are offered by two types of institution: those which are professionally-oriented and those research-based. The Dutch tertiary system is compatible with the ECTS credit system.

There is also a smaller group of Institutes for International Education (IE) in the Netherlands that offer advanced training and programmes specifically aimed at international students. IE Institutes offer short courses, Masters and sometimes PhD programmes.

Learn more about ECTS

Learn more about Institutes for International Education in the Netherlands


Hoger Beroepsonderwijs (HBO): Higher Professional Education

HBO Institutions offer programmes that are oriented towards a particular profession, giving students theoretical and practical preparation for what’s required in a specific workplace. Qualifications are awarded at Bachelor and Masters study levels.

Bachelor study programmes at a HBO take a full-time student four years to complete, whilst a Masters degree will typically takes one-two years. A Masters degree in Medicine at a HBO takes three years to complete. Programmes in most general and applied areas of study are available at HBO institutions, with typical study areas of Applied Arts and Sciences, Teaching, Music and Social Work. As study programmes are market-based, students are generally required to complete traineeships or internships as part of their degree.

HBO students wishing to transfer to a university after receiving their undergraduate qualification will need to complete an additional year of study called a ‘pre-master programme,’ in which they will take key courses from the Bachelor phase of their prospective Masters. Depending on their academic success in this bridging year, students may then be accepted into a Masters programme at a university.

Click here for a full list of HBO Institutions


Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs (WO): University Education

In the Netherlands, the word ‘university’ does not refer to tertiary education as a general concept: it denotes a very specific type of institution that gives specifically recognized qualifications. WO institutions offer programmes that are academically-based, and offer students the chance to complete study programmes at Bachelor, Masters and PhD levels. Entry to these institutions is generally considered competitive.

Bachelor and Masters programmes focus on specific areas of study within general fields of Arts or Science. For example, a student may graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Philosophy, or a Masters of Science (MSc) in Business Studies.

A Bachelor degree typically takes three years to complete (equivalent to 180 ECTS credits). A Masters study will generally take a year (60 ECTS), with selected Masters programmes in areas of Teaching, Medicine, Dentistry, and research-based programmes taking longer. A PhD may take about four years to complete.

Click here for a full list of WO Institutions


Dutch grading system

Students in the Netherlands are graded on a scale of one-ten, with one denoting very poor work and ten being outstanding. The lowest possible passing grade is a six, whilst nines, tens, and grades one-three are seldom used.  


Academic culture

Tertiary study in the Netherlands has a strong research reputation and focuses less firmly on closed-book exams as means of assessment. Often, only about one third of a module will be weighted on an exam, with the other components assessed between performance in seminars, unique tasks, group work and other assignments.

Dutch teaching styles are student-centred and emphasise interactivity between students and with teachers. There is strong focus on the importance of teamwork, and students are encouraged to develop an open mind to new ideas and be tolerant towards those of others. Teamwork intends to force students to self-manage their coursework whilst developing skills of self-discipline, as opposed to relying on guidance from the professor. Addressing needs and views of other students seeks to foster key interpersonal skills that are applicable in ‘real world’ contexts.  

Students are encouraged to speak freely in class and not shy from expressing their opinion, provided it is substantiated. Dutch culture favours directness, and so students too timid to speak up may give off the wrong impression that they are failing to engage with the coursework.  


Now that you know your HBOs from your WOs, why not browse courses in the Netherlands now and start planning your study abroad adventure?


Useful links:

Credential recognition in the Netherlands

Dutch graduate schemes for overseas visitors


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About Author

Monica Karpinski received her BA (Media and Communications) and Diploma in Modern Languages (French) from the University of Melbourne, Australia. An art and culture aficionado, in her spare time Monica enjoys film, reading and writing about art.