Low Dutch grades baffle internationals
A 10 is for God
Spanish exchange student Julia Martínez performed exceptionally well in her Media Studies courses. But when she went back home, her grades lost their shine. Getting an 8 or higher was hard work at the RUG, yet by Spanish standards, the grade didn’t reflect that achievement.
She was left with grades that, in Spain, were only sort of okay. ‘I thought it was very unfair and my effort meant nothing because it was not recognised on my transcript back home’, she says.
Many students, especially internationals like Julia, struggle with the Dutch grading system. If you ask a Dutch person if they were disappointed about getting an 8, they will look at you in surprise; an 8 or 8.5 is considered quite excellent at Dutch universities. However, in other countries, it is halfway between average and good.
Faculty of Arts vice dean Roel Jonkers acknowledges the problem. ‘Exchange students sometimes complain that grade conversion is not fair’, he says. When students apply for internships or jobs outside of the Netherlands, their grades might not seem as good as they actually are.
‘An employer might not be familiar with the Dutch system’, Jonkers says. An average of 8 or above is a very good grade, but employers might pick another candidate based on grading differences.
Exchange students sometimes complain that grade conversion is not fair
The grading system in the Netherlands is indeed different than in other European countries. Some study advisers even warn exchange students during welcome days that getting an 8 is not a failure.
Getting a 9 or a 10 is a different story altogether. According to the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education (Nuffic), 9s are seldom given and 10s are downright rare. There has always been a tendency in the Netherlands not to award the higher grades.
Director Rob Wagenaar of the RUG International Tuning Academy recalls similar cases in Europe: ‘In France they joke that 10 is for God, 9 is for the professor, and 8 is for the best student. You could say it’s the same in the Netherlands.’
The problem is that grading is a cultural concept. ‘In France you don’t give more than a 16 or 17 out of 20; in the Netherlands, you give an 8 or 8.5, but the 9 or 10 only appear in extraordinary cases’, Wagenaar says.
Wagenaar and his team tried to solve the issue by unifying the European credit system. However, it’s difficult to change the attitude of academic staff. ‘We never were able to convince teachers that they should grade in a consistent way’, Wagenaar says. ‘It doesn’t ring with academic staff.’
Lonneke Oostland, student of the research master philosophy and winner of the 2019 GUF-100 excellence award, says the highest grade she ever got was a 9.5. ‘But an 8 felt like a really good grade.’
In the Dutch grading system, she says, a 10 represents the perfect essay. ‘And that is just impossible to achieve as a student. A perfect essay does not exist, because an essay is never completely done.’ Even advanced papers, written by professors, always leave open questions and further research possibilities, she adds.
Master student of finance and economics Erwin Karsten, who also won a GUF-100 award last year, agrees. He doesn’t think an 8.5 is a ‘good, but not really great grade. It’s excellent.’
He is one of the rare students who has been awarded a 10 during his studies. It happened three times, but only with multiple choice exams. Such exams are black and white, and achieving high grades is more feasible than with essay questions. Karsten thinks his shiny 10s were well-deserved: ‘I put in a lot of hours for the exam.’
The complaints that getting high grades at the RUG is too difficult are unjustified, he feels. Earning a 10 is hard, but it is also an achievement. ‘If it gets easier, for me, getting a 10 would lose much of its value.’
If it gets easier, getting a 10 would lose much of its value
Karsten is fond of the 10-scale grading system. ‘The system reflects the amount of questions one got correct relative to the total amount, as opposed to a system in which it is dependent on other people’s grades’, he says. A grading system where a 10 is normal to achieve would be a superficial grading system that ignores that knowledge is the journey, not the destination.
Oostland agrees. ‘I don’t think the complaint is justified at all’, she says. ‘People have to understand what a 10 stands for and realise that getting an 8 is already pretty amazing.’ She doesn’t mind that students may not be able to achieve perfection. ‘That is how it should be’, she adds.
Still, education institutions are aware that the Dutch grading might be an obstacle for international students when they apply for jobs, internships, or other studies. ‘Saying that the student is excellent has no meaning and most employers just want to know if someone is in the top 10, 15 or 20’, says Wagenaar.
It’s not just the Netherlands either that has a particular grading system. In Poland or the Czech Republic 40 percent get the top mark; in Germany, only 20 percent will get to 1, which is the highest grade. ‘Every country has its own challenges.’
To solve this problem, Wagenaar and his team implemented a European Commission level policy that links grading to percentages. When you graduate from the RUG, you receive your diploma or your transcript with proof of your academic performance in a percentage scale.
The percentage scale shows that, for example, an 8 corresponds to the top 15 percent of the class. Out of a hundred students, the 15 that got an 8 or above are at the top. Wagenaar hopes this will put an end to international students’ problems. ‘Then everybody can see that 8 is a high mark, and you have evidence.’