MBO students would benefit from clearer support: existing agreements still often unpredictable

Equal opportunities: Minister of Education, Culture and Science’s policy could achieve more

Students’ results could be improved by concrete agreements between the Minister of Education, Culture and Science and the boards of secondary vocational education institutions (MBO) on boosting equal opportunities. The additional €1.6 billion made available in recent years – on top of the fixed MBO budget – was intended to combat discrimination and inequality of opportunity. In practice, however, it has not helped to reduce student disadvantage. 

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Supplementary agreements are needed to determine the minimum level of help to which MBO students are entitled and the results to be achieved by 2027, now that the minister has earmarked around €1 billion for this purpose. This was the recommendation made by the Netherlands Court of Audit on 14 February 2024 following an in-depth audit that found no evidence that the current measures were helping to reduce inequality of opportunity in the MBO.

The minister has set aside over €3.8 billion of funding to improve the quality of vocational education and internships in 2023-2027. This is on top of the sector’s regular budget. Around €1 billion of this extra funding has been specifically earmarked to help boost equal opportunities by 2027. In recent years, MBO institutions’ boards have made various efforts to assist students with a migration background or a disability. However, the minister does not know the extent of the problems they face. And neither have specific priorities and objectives for the coming years been set. Instead, institutions are free to decide on their approach for themselves and often continue to target their policies at all students. A recently agreed plan to monitor results is a step in the right direction, but the target groups and objectives are still insufficiently clear.

The audit found that many students were satisfied with the MBO. The minister has improved students’ position and made it easier for them to access funding and student travel products. MBO institutions have also received extra funding for educational and training materials and to recruit staff to deal with backlogs. The measures are having some effect, but the existing agreements and lack of information mean the extent of any benefits is unclear. Extra funding has been allocated to boost equal opportunities over the next few years, yet the minister has not made it sufficiently clear to MBO institutions what it is supposed to achieve.

Students with a migration background start at lower MBO levels

Students with a non-Western migration background or growing up in poverty have fewer opportunities and this impacts on their school careers. They are overrepresented, for example, in the lower levels of vocational training. However, a Court of Audit analysis found students with a non-Western migration background to be more likely to move on to a higher level of MBO education, maybe because they start at a level below their capabilities.

Students with higher-educated parents are themselves more likely to move on to a higher level of education than those with less-educated parents. The Court of Audit report includes examples from students, tutors and mentors of people being treated differently because of their backgrounds or a disability. 

Differences depending on programme and MBO location

The audit also found that where MBO students follow a programme also matters. Some students received the extra guidance and support they needed. Others, however, did not. This could vary from institution to institution, from programme to programme and from one tutor or internship supervisor to another. Interestingly, we found that students’ chances of completing a programme and moving on to a higher level varied more within MBO institutions than between MBO institutions. The differences can mean that some students’ weaker starting positions are simply perpetuated. This was confirmed by our analyses of data from DUO (the organisation implementing education regulations) and the institutions’ quality agendas for 2019-2022. Our investigation of day-to-day practice at seven MBO institutions showed that where MBO students follow programmes or do internships and apprenticeships is important. Who supervises them is also matters. We regard this matter as serious because an MBO diploma provides an important basis for the subsequent careers, earnings and well-being of hundreds of thousands of young people.

MBO institutions’ directors are often unclear about what their efforts to reduce inequality of opportunity have achieved. What works in practice and what does not? Similarly, the minister does not know what the policy has achieved and so whether it is efficient and effective. And that means he is not in a position to inform the House of Representatives on whether the policy represents value for money. The Court of Audit consequently recommends agreeing on the minimum level of guidance and support to which students are entitled.

The minister’s response confirms that although he understands and supports the recommendations, the government’s current status as a caretaker government means he cannot give any undertakings in this respect. The Court of Audit emphasises the urgent need to achieve equality of opportunity, given the important role of MBO students in society.