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Unveiling Education System in Netherlands

Updated on 05 December, 2023

Shivangi Mishra

Shivangi Mishra

Sr. Content Editor

The Netherlands, a beacon of educational diversity and innovation, offers a dynamic landscape for higher education seekers. Known for its personalized approach and world-class institutions within the education system in the Netherlands, the Dutch education system caters to a broad spectrum of academic interests and career aspirations.

Characteristics of the Netherlands Educational System

Here’s a comprehensive overview of the brilliant education system of the Netherlands. 

Division of Education

  • Dutch education encompasses a spectrum of schools, each tailored to specific age groups and educational levels.
  • Schools are categorized into three main types: public, special (often religious), and general-special (neutral) schools.
  • Public, special, and general-special schools receive government funding, supplemented by voluntary parental contributions.
  • Oversight and regulation of education are entrusted to the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science in collaboration with municipal governments.

Compulsory Education

  • Compulsory education begins at age five, with most schools admitting children as young as four.
  • From age sixteen, there is partial compulsory education, mandating attendance for at least two days a week.
  • Compulsory education concludes for students at age eighteen or upon acquiring a diploma at the VWO, HAVO, or MBO level. 

Freedom of Education

  • Dutch education adheres to Article 23 of the Constitution, ensuring the freedom of education.
  • Individuals can establish schools guided by their religious, ideological, or educational convictions, leading to a diverse landscape of both public and private schools.

International Education

  • The Netherlands hosts numerous international schools that provide English-medium curricula, welcoming students from diverse backgrounds.
  • International schools cater to expatriate families and students seeking a globally focused-education.
  • The Dutch education system stands as a testament to its adaptability, inclusivity, and commitment to nurturing individual potential. It assures that students receive an education tailored to their unique needs and aspirations, embodying the essence of academic excellence.

Primary and Secondary Education in the Netherlands

In the Netherlands, the educational framework is structured to offer students a holistic and all-encompassing learning journey, starting from primary education and extending through secondary schooling.

Primary Education 

In the Netherlands, primary education is a vital foundational phase for children aged 4 to 12. This eight-year journey begins at age 4 or 5, with compulsory education starting at 5. Children attend mainstream or special primary schools, and some have the opportunity to learn in bilingual environments where Dutch and English are integrated.

Secondary Education 

After completing primary education, students transition to secondary education, known as "voortgezet onderwijs." This phase begins around age twelve and offers three main tracks:

  1. VMBO: VMBO provides a mix of vocational and general education, offering different levels of complexity and specialization. It prepares students for careers or further education in fields like engineering, business, healthcare, and more.
  2. HAVO: HAVO is a five-year program focusing on general education. It qualifies students for higher professional education (HBO).
  3. VWO: VWO is a six-year program that offers a strong emphasis on academic subjects. Graduates are eligible for research universities (WO).

Overall, the education levels in the Netherlands strives to provide a well-structured and inclusive learning environment, ensuring that students are well-prepared for their future academic and career pursuits.

Education Levels in the Netherlands Higher Education System

The higher education system in the Netherlands offers a versatile and structured approach to cater to the diverse needs and backgrounds of students. For Grade 12 to undergraduate students considering education in the Netherlands, comprehending the Dutch educational framework beyond secondary school is paramount.

Education Beyond Secondary School

After completing secondary education, students can pursue further studies in the Netherlands, including: 

  • Higher Professional Education (HBO): Offering bachelor's degree programs, these institutions are known as universities of applied sciences.
  • Research Universities (WO): These institutions provide bachelor's, master's, and doctoral programs in various fields.

Types of Higher Educational Institutions

There are separate institutions for HBO and WO education. Universities in the Netherlands offer WO education or research-oriented programs. The aim of WO educational institutions is to educate students for a profession in which they can apply scientific knowledge, emphasizing solving scientific issues and scientific thinking. On the other hand, Universities of Applied Science offer HBO education, which is more practical-oriented. 

Now, let's break down each of these types to understand them better.

Research Universities (WO): Nurturing Scientific Minds

At Research Universities (WO), the educational emphasis is on cultivating a deep understanding of scientific principles and fostering critical thinking. WO institutions are designed to prepare students for roles requiring in-depth theoretical knowledge and advanced research skills. While the contact hours may be fewer, students are encouraged to engage independently with course materials, promoting self-directed learning.

Universities of Applied Sciences (HBO): A Practical Embrace

Conversely, Universities of Applied Sciences provide HBO education, characterized by a hands-on, practical learning experience. Here, students engage in the direct application of skills relevant to their chosen professions. The curriculum involves more contact hours, collaborative projects, and a focus on addressing real-world challenges.

HBO education is categorized into seven distinct sectors, each catering to specific professional domains:

Students at Universities of Applied Sciences can enroll in multiple study programs within these sectors, offering a versatile and applied educational experience.

The Educational Choice: Key Considerations

All HBO and WO courses fall under the bachelor-master system. While the bachelor's degree programs are broader, master's degree programs lead to specialization in a specific, chosen field. 


  • WO bachelor's programs typically span three years.
  • HBO bachelor's programs last four years.
  • A master's degree program takes up to 2 years, while a master's in engineering can last longer.


  • For WO bachelor's programs, students must have a diploma at the Dutch VWO level (pre-university secondary education) or an HBO first-year diploma (propaedeutical year).
  • The minimum admissions requirement for an HBO bachelor's program is a diploma at Dutch MBO level 4 (senior secondary vocational education) or Dutch HAVO (higher general secondary education).

Number of Institutions: 

  • There are 43 HBO institutions in the Netherlands that together offer 200 programs in a broad spectrum of disciplines.
  • On the other hand, there are 13 WO universities in the Netherlands, which include 3 universities of technology. 


  • WO prioritizes theoretical knowledge, scientific thinking, and research skills.
  • HBO emphasizes practical skills and profession-oriented education.

Career Paths:

  • WO prepares students for academic, research, or professional roles requiring critical thinking.
  • HBO prepares students for specific roles in professions, focusing on immediate applicability.

In essence, the educational landscape in the Netherlands allows students to tailor their learning experience based on their career aspirations and preferred learning styles, contributing to a diverse and comprehensive higher education system.

Grading System in Dutch Higher Education

In the Netherlands, the education system is celebrated for its diversity and adaptability, serving the unique needs and backgrounds of students. The grading system in Dutch higher education plays a pivotal role in assessing students' academic performance.  

Higher Education

  • Dutch higher education grading: 1 to 10.
  • The passing grade is usually 5.5 or higher.
  • Grading criteria vary by institution and program.

Understanding the Dutch higher education grading system is vital for students pursuing education in the Netherlands. It reflects personalized learning and diversity, guiding students on their academic journey in this diverse and innovative educational landscape.
Read More Related Articles:


Is the education system tough in the Netherlands?

The Dutch education system is renowned for its stringent standards and commitment to excellence, presenting students with a demanding yet rewarding path to both personal and academic development.

How is the education system in the Netherlands ranked globally?

The Netherlands has distinguished itself as the seventh-best nation globally for higher education. This ranking underscores the country's commitment to delivering exceptional educational opportunities.

What are the benefits of studying in the Netherlands?

Pursuing higher education in the Netherlands presents a host of benefits. These encompass a wide array of program options, degrees acknowledged worldwide, a top-notch educational system, and the chance to immerse oneself in a multicultural milieu. Furthermore, the accessibility of English-taught courses caters to the needs of international students.

Shivangi Mishra

Sr. Content Editor

She is an experienced writer and journalist who has extensively covered the education sector in India and Abroad. Now helping Indian aspirants realise their foreign education dream by providing them with relevant content and information through upGrad Abroad. Amateur traveller, loves to read Architectural Digest!

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