Understand the Dutch education system: from kinder to university

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The Dutch education system is quite complicated and requires some preparation if you’re coming from another country. This blog will allow you to have an overview of the Dutch education system’s specificities as an expat moving to the Netherlands from kinder to university.

As overwhelming as the system may seem, the Netherlands is ranked as the 2nd best education system in Europe and welcomes 82 000 foreign students every year.

The Dutch education system

dutch education system : Kinder to university

This diagram simplifies the complex Dutch. First, kids usually go to kinder garden before being 4 or 5 years old and then go to elementary school. In the Netherlands, school is mandatory at the age of 5 and can be either public (Openbaar) or special (Bijzondere).  They will gain the basic knowledge and finish elementary around the age of 12.

Secondary school:

After this age, they have to choose between several types of secondary school.

The first one is preparatory vocational secondary education (VMBO). It is a 4-year program that prepares the student for MBO by teaching them a mix of theoretical and vocational knowledge.

The second one is senior general secondary education (HAVO) This one is a 5-year program that prepares for HBO. In this program, pupils have 3 years of basic formation with subjects like languages, mathematics, history, sciences, and arts. After those 3 first years, pupils have to choose between several programs depending on their career affinity.

The choices are:

  • Cultuur en Maatschappij (culture and society)
  • Economie en Maatschappij (economy and society)
  • Natuur en Gezondheid (nature and health)
  • Natuur en Techniek (nature and technology)

Finally, the third one is the university preparatory education (VWO). This is a 6-year course attended by the brightest students. There are two variants of VWO: Atheneum and Gymnasium. The difference between them is that in Gymnasium, students have to take an additional course of Latin or/and Ancient Greek during their 6 years of studies in the program.

During their first 4 years, they have to choose 7 topics out of the 14 available, depending on their interests and career choices. After those 4 years, they start Phase II where they have to choose 1 program out of the 4 quoted above in the HAVO section. However, all students receive the same basic knowledge such as Dutch, mathematics, social sciences and so on.

Higher education:

After secondary school, students usually start higher education. There are two types of universities in the Netherlands: university of applied science (HBO) and university of science (WO), also called research university. HBO is accessible from the 3 types of secondary school (MBO level 4 only); however, WO is only accessible for students from HAVO with 1 year enrolled in an HBO program and students from VWO.

HBO is composed of 4 years bachelor’s degree and 1- or 2-years master’s degree. WO is a higher education and is composed of 3 years bachelor’s degree and also a 1 to 3 years master’s degree. It is possible for an HBO bachelor’s graduated students to attempt a master’s degree at a university of science but only if the students take a pre-master program in order to regain the possible lack of knowledge they should have.

After graduating with a master’s degree, WO students can, of course, start looking for a job but also continue their studies by doing a Ph.D research program during a few more years.

Where to search for a higher education program

Studyportals is a good website if you know you want to study in the Netherlands, but you don’t know which bachelor’s or master’s degree you want to take on. Their website is separated in three, a bachelor’s portal, a master’s portal ,and a Ph.D portal.

Study in Holland is also a good website to refer to if you are looking for a study program in the Netherlands but it is most useful if you have some apprehensions about the Dutch education or specific questions about your future stay in the Netherlands.

The last searching method that you can apply is to have a look at the ranking of Dutch universities online, check every university websites and see what study programs they offer. Indeed, this method can take way longer than the two previous ones, but you might get more information and will be able to email the universities directly.

To save you some time, we listed the first five best universities of the Netherlands here:

University for expats

The first requirement you’ll need is your ETCS credits that you collected during your previous years of education. For example, if you did the equivalent of a HAVO secondary school program from your home country, and you want to access a WO bachelor’s degree, you might need to do one missing year in an HBO program and then go to the WO program.

Another example can be that you finished your bachelor’s degree in your home country and want to do your master’s degree in a Dutch university of science, you might have to do a pre-master if the university in your home country is considered and a university of applied science because you’ll not have enough ECTS credits or have some key topics missing in your education.


Now about university tuition fees and study cost. For Dutch, EU/EEA and Swiss students, public university tuition fees are mostly covered by the Dutch government, but students still have to pay more or less EUR 2 000 per year, depending on the program you are applying for.

For non-EU students, however, university costs are way more expensive, between EUR 6 000 and EUR 15 000 a year for a bachelor’s degree program and between EUR 8 000 and EUR 20 000 a year for a master’s degree program. There are also private schools in the Netherlands for specific studies like business or MBA. Those programs cost more or less EUR 26 000 for the whole program.

Don’t forget that added to those studying costs you have to take into account the cost of living in the Netherlands, especially for your accommodation. Also, it depends on the city you live in. Amsterdam, Utrecht and The Hague are the most expensive cities and to give you a comparison, Amsterdam is on average 17% cheaper than London, the same living cost as Paris and 16% more expensive than Munich.

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