• Applied sciences versus research

    Spot the differences

    Nowadays, research is being conducted at the applied sciences (hbo) level and you can achieve an applied sciences master’s degree. Upon completion of a hbo bachelor, you can call yourself a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science. What differences are actually left between applied sciences and research universities?
    in short

    Higher education in the Netherlands is a binary system with the applied sciences of hbo on one side and the theoretically- and scientifically-oriented research universities on the other.

    This system is only used in a few other countries and is connected to the separation of havo (higher general continued education) and vwo (pre-university secondary education) tracks in Dutch high schools.

    Over the last 20 years, hbo and wo education have become increasingly similar. In 1998, education minister Loek Hermans introduced the possibility of doing research at universities of applied sciences.

    The focus of the research conducted within both types of degree programmes has remained distinct from one another: at the research universities, scientific research is undertaken, whereas hbo universities do applied research.

    Since the turn of the century, it has been possible to follow a master’s programme at the hbo level. Starting in 2014, hbo master’s programmes have been funded by the government and now carry the same status as a wo master’s degree.

    In the future, hbo and wo will collaborate more often, according to those involved. One example is the Energy Academy Europe, which the Hanze University of Applied Sciences and the RUG collaborated on, and for which the Hanze developed two university-level master’s degree programmes.

    According to Hanze president Henk Pijlman, the individual profile of an institution is becoming increasingly important. ‘In England, they know perfectly well that a degree from Oxford is something entirely different than one from London South Bank University.’

    full version

    Reading time: 10 minutes (1,741 words)

    Since the 1980s, the Netherlands has had a binary education system for higher education: the applied sciences of the hbo level on one side, and research universities – where one goes to become a scholar – on the other.

    Internationally speaking, that is not necessarily self-evident. Henk Pijlman, president of the Hanze University of Applied Sciences: ‘The binary system can only be found in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Scandinavian countries and Alpine countries. Great Britain also had this system, but Thatcher (the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, red.) did away with it 25 years ago. In Sweden, research-based education and applied sciences education are no longer separated as they once were; it is now more about the character of the institution. In most countries, there are universities where you can choose to follow scientific or vocational education programmes.’

    So why has the Netherlands chosen a binary system, then? For starters, because of the different initial qualifications you can choose from after secondary school: with a sixth-form college diploma (vwo), you can go straight to university, but you cannot do that with a junior college diploma (havo).

    An important distinction exists in the research as well. Former RUG Rector Magnificus Frans Zwarts: ‘Substantial research is conducted at universities, and there is funding for this. This is not done at hbo institutions or, if it is, it is to a far lesser extent.’


    Over the past 20 years, there have been signs that the lines between the types of education are blurring. ‘An academic drift has occurred at universities of applied sciences’, says Zwarts.

    The shift began around 1998, at the time of the second social-liberal coalition. Pijlman: ‘It was then that Loek Hermans implemented hbo professorships: lectorates. In Europe, providing higher education without research was unthinkable. That is what we did in the Netherlands. He put an end to it, but he continued to hew closely to the binary structure. Universities conduct purely scientific research and the universities of applied sciences conduct applied research.’ Since Hermans made the change, research has remained among the statutory duties for research universities and universities of applied sciences.

    The VSNU (Association of Universities in the Netherlands) is not surprised that differences have gotten progressively smaller. ‘Boundaries blur’, says Bastiaan Verweij on behalf of the university representative body. ‘To a certain extent, it is desirable for universities of applied sciences to conduct research, and that you are clearly informed about what you are being trained for at the university, be it aeronautics or space technology.’

    Applied and academic 

    But the purpose and goals of research conducted at each level remain fundamentally different. ‘A university of applied sciences will never do what the university can do in its research’, Pijlman thinks. ‘In Groningen, the Hanze has been doing research for 20 years, but the RUG has been doing it for 400. As such, they must remain distinct from one another. What we do is applied; what the RUG does is academic.’

    That this distinction between the two should be preserved is something that the universities of applied sciences and research universities agree on. Marjolein Schooleman from the Association for Universities of Applied Sciences, says, ‘If you were to get rid of that distinction, then you would have to turn the whole system on its head, and that would have consequences not only for universities of applied sciences but for secondary education as well.’

    The question is whether that distinction is being maintained. Pijlman knows that hbo master’s programmes have been on the rise since the beginning of the millennium and that these have been funded by the government since 2014. Two years ago, it was also decided that a person would be granted the same title as that for a university master’s degree upon completion of a hbo master, says the Hanze president. ‘Previously, you had to come up with your own title, but no one really knew what do with that outside the Netherlands.’ It was only in 2014 that the titles for the bachelors became standardised.

    ‘What do we mean by level?’

    But are you really at the same level as someone with a wo master’s degree if you have a hbo master’s degree? Pijlman’s retort: ‘What do we mean by level? The same theoretical level? No. A wo master has to be at a higher theoretical level. But ask yourself: who is better prepared for professional practice? I would say those who have a hbo diploma.’

    ‘An academic drift exists at universities of applied sciences’

    It is difficult to make a hard and fast distinction between vocational education and academic, research-based education, says Pijlman. ‘Is law vocational or academic? Is a dentist an academic, a professional or both? In any case, the titles have now been standardised and the minister wants more hbo masters programmes to be developed, as we are now falling behind in Europe. And those programmes are funded.’

    The Hanze offers masters programmes from advanced nursing practices to social work. A few masters, such as the programme to become a physician’s assistant, are aimed at individuals who already have years of experience in a profession. The other master’s programmes can be followed after completing a bachelor’s degree. But at the university of applied sciences in Groningen, you will not find a masters that the RUG already has, says Pijlman. ‘Why would we offer that?’

    Learning by doing

    Marijke Ringnalda (23) began the master degree in international business and management at the Hanze in September. ‘Because I prefer to learn by doing, I did not immediately think about following a programme at the university. Online, I discovered that there were also hbo masters. I think that they are better connected to the field.’

    Another difference with the university is the personal guidance you receive during a master’s. According to Ringnalda, students at the university of applied sciences are assisted in making choices and they receive lessons about personal development and networking.

    Her master’s degree will take 17 months. ‘The lessons are lectures, but they are also interactive. A big difference with the bachelor is that we learn much more about theory. But in reality, the industry comes into play in every assignment.’ In September 2017, she will start counting down to graduation. ‘You have three choices: start your own business, do an internship or do a final project with a professor.’

    Perfect combination

    So how do vocational university studies compare to their hbo equivalents? The educational bachelor (pabo), otherwise known as the Academic Programme for Teachers of Primary education (AOLB), is an example. This programme was developed by the RUG, in collaboration with the Northern universities: of applied sciences: the Hanze, Stenden and NHL.

    ‘What we do is applied research; what the RUG does is scientific’

    ‘For me, this was the perfect combination of theoretical and practical’, says AOLB fourth year student Hilde Bekkers (21). ‘If you pursue a pedagogical degree at the university, you hardly get the chance to see the things you learn in practice. And I feel that the theory in the pabo is sometimes not challenging enough.’ After four years of studying – during which you do an internship for one day a week – a thesis and a graduation internship, you have a pabo diploma and a bachelor of Educational Sciences. With that, you can either go into education, follow a master’s programmes at the university such as Educational Science, or you can follow a master at a university of applied sciences.

    Do these ‘equivalent programmes’ not suppress the labour market? Who would be likelier to be hired at a school: a teacher with a hbo diploma or one with a university diploma? Pijlman’s choice: ‘The one who can teach the best and has the most theoretical knowledge.’ AOLB student Esther Kijk in de Vegte (21) says, ‘Perhaps schools will think about what is appropriate and will assess candidates accordingly. They may ask themselves, ‘Do I want a student who is specialised in teaching or somebody who can also do research at school?’’

    Collaboration is the future

    According to those involved, the future lies in collaboration. That can be seen in the form of the Energy Academy Europe (EAE), for which the Hanze developed two European masters: sustainable energy system management and renewable energy. Remarkably enough, both are university masters.

    ‘But that is an exception’, says Pijlman. ‘And do we want to carry on doing that? No. Why have we done it in this instance, then? Because the business industry asked for it, it is an EAE collaboration, and the RUG does not offer this specialism, so that is what we have created. The RUG has offered its full support in the development of these programmes. The Energy Academy is a great tie between the institutions. And that is how it should be, I feel. What is ideal is that one continuously learns and everyone does what they are good at.’

    On the one hand, university and applied sciences education are moving towards each other and working together, but on the other hand, they aren’t. Pijlman: ‘The profile of an institution is becoming more important. Some say it is appalling that a student studying at a university of applied sciences receives the same title as a student at university. But in England, they know perfectly well that a degree from Oxford is something entirely different than one from London South Bank University. That does not mean that you will always get a job quicker or more effectively having studied at Oxford. Perhaps London South Bank offers something that businesses want that Oxford does not offer. So the question becomes, what is the profile of an institution?’

    ‘The RUG does the best it can in order to be in the top 100 and to remain there’, continues Pijlman. ‘That is their profile, to be counted among the top universities with its research masters and research facilities which are far removed from applied sciences. So in that sense, hbo and university are not moving toward each other at all. It is going to become more about what your institution is good at. What is the education like? What courses can you follow in your programme as a student? What can you do? What have you done during your study?’


    Nevertheless, the Netherlands does not want to completely do away of the binary system just yet. Why not? Because it works. Zwarts: ‘The Dutch education system has already undergone many changes. With each change, you have to look at feasibility and funding. Universities are extremely expensive and the number of students has increased tremendously. You have to look at the earnings of the system. In my opinion, the Dutch system is very successful.’

    ‘There should be as few barriers as possible in education’

    However, Zwarts and Pijlman feel that the tracks in education are a problem child, Zwarts fears that children fall by the wayside owing to selection procedures before secondary school: ‘In the last year of primary school, children are already have a Solomon-like dilemma. This is because we wanted to get away from uniform thinking. I strongly object to this.’

    Zwarts also contests the idea that hbo students are less talented than wo students. ‘There can be many reasons why one follows one kind of education and the other does not. In comparison with other provinces, fewer 18-year-olds from Friesland go on to academic education. This is because there is not a university in Friesland itself. As such, students do not go to Groningen, which would be the bigger step, but instead to a university of applied sciences in Leeuwarden, where there are plenty of students who could easily study at the university. The Frisian politicians want to ensure that this group can go on to do a master’s after their hbo study; hopefully, more master’s degrees will be offered at the University Campus Fryslan.’

    ‘I feel there should be as few barriers as possible in education’, says Pijlman. Master’s selection can create such a barrier, he says. ‘But the barriers from hbo to university should also be removed as much as possible without diminished quality.’ Students must be allowed as much space as possible to advance, the Hanze president feels. ‘The same applies to advancing from senior secondary vocational education (mbo) to hbo education. The state has put many barriers in place because they feel it would be too expensive otherwise. I feel that that is short-sighted. Education is empowerment – it is achieving your full potential.’