Structure of Education System

The education system in the Netherlands is very well organised and oriented towards promoting innovation among the students. While there is no formal pre-primary education, primary, secondary and tertiary education are flourishing in this nation. Education is assigned a lot of importance in this country and there are many options at the higher education level as well.

Facts about Primary and Secondary Education in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, children commence schooling at the age of 4 generally. Thy are legally required to begin schooling from 5 years. Primary education lasts for eight years, from which 7 are compulsory. Following the completion of primary education, students are then provided advice and guidance for pursuing secondary education. 

Secondary education starts at the age of 12 for students in the Netherlands and it is mandatory till the age of 16. Secondary education is offered at different levels in the Netherlands.

Vmbo programmes last for 4 years and they include general as well as vocational education. Following this, students have the choice of continuing in senior secondary vocational education and training through the mbo programme. The latter programme lasts for a duration of 1 to 4 years.

Two programmes of general education which can be completed to attain access to higher education are havo and vwo. While havo lasts for 5 years, vwo lasts for 6 years. These are selective kinds of secondary education in the Netherlands. The curriculum of vwo involves preparing students for university and it is considered as the more rigorous of the two general education programmes. Only the vwo grants access to the wo programmes at higher level.

A havo diploma is required for access to the hbo programme. Tweede fase or the second phase of upper secondary education comprises the last 2 years of havo and three years of vwo. Students focus on one of 4 subject clusters during this study period.

The study clusters are called 'profielen' and they stress a specific field of study along with general education requirements. The clusters are created to ensure pupils are ready for programmes of study at tertiary or higher level. Students enrolled in vwo/havo can choose from subject clusters such as Naturr en Techniek and Cultuur en Maatschappij.

Senior secondary vocational education and training is referred to as mbo and it is  known as “middelbaar beroepsonderwijs.” It is provided in areas such as economics, health, personal care, technology, social welfare and agriculture. These programmes range from one to four years and are of 4 levels. Graduates of this programme can apply for mbo. Those who complete mbo at level 4 can opt for hbo.

Higher Education in the Netherlands

A higher education system in the Netherlands is based on a 3 cycle degree system which comprises undergraduate, postgraduate and doctoral studies. This 3 cycle system was introduced during the academic year rom 2002 to 2003 by the Netherlands. This has a binary system of higher education and involves two types of programmes namely:

  • Wetenschappelijk onderwijs/wo or research oriented /academic education: This is offered by all the research universities in the Netherlands.
  • Hoger beroepsonderwijs/hbo/professional higher education: This is offered by universities of applied sciences such as hogescholen.
The Dutch education system uses wo and hbo for signifying these courses of education.
Higher education in the Netherlands is provided by two types of institutions namely the universiteiten or research universities and hogesscholen or universities of applied sciences.

Research Universties:
These include general universities which specialise in agriculture and engineering as well as the Open University. These offer research oriented programmes wo programmes. Dutch research universities also provide education and research in numerous disciplines.

IO or International Education: The higher education system includes a third branch with small number of students. This is the Internationaal Onderwijs or the international education. This higher education system offers advanced training and it was originally intended for persons from developing countries where jobs need specialised know-how. This education system offers problem solving courses and programmes in a wide number of fields including post graduate studies.

The emphasis is on the research and practical application of the know-how. Courses are taught in English medium and they are from a few weeks to a period of two years. Institutes of international education do not offer doctoral studies with the exception of the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague.

Many of these international education institutions do have agreements with Dutch universities which enable pupils to be able to pursue the doctoral studies. Admission requirements are based on the type of courses which are being applied for. In many cases, the bachelor's degree or its equal is needed for admission to master's programme. Similarly, for entry into a PhD programme, students must have pursued a master's programme.

Work experience is an additional requirement and international education is subsidised by the government. It is the government which finances theese institutes and gives scholarships for the students in ares such as law, medical and health sciences as well as economics.

Universities of applied sciences: These include general as well as specialised institutions in one of 7 hbo sectors including agriculture, technology and engineering, economics and business administration, health care, fine and  social welfare. These universities offer programmes of professional higher education which are known as hbo or hoger beroepsonderwijs. These programmes prepare students for entry into certain professions and these are more practically oriented than research university programmes.


Higher education in the Netherlands  is divided into three categories and students can choose what they want on the basis of their requirements. Primary and secondary education in the Netherlands prepare students for higher education.
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