Complete description of the Dutch educational system

1. Compulsory education

In the Netherlands, education is compulsory for pupils between 5 and 16 years of age. The law requires pupils who have not gained a diploma at NLQF-level 2 or higher at 16 years of age, to be in education and attend school until they turn 18.

2. Primary education

Primary education is intended for pupils between 4 and 12 years and lasts for eight consecutive years. The first year is not compulsory. Depending on results pupils will start in different forms of general secondary education.

3. Secondary education

All types of secondary education start with a period of basic secondary education, which usually lasts 2 to 3 school years and offers a broad range of subjects that is in principle the same for everyone. The pupils are also offered ‘educational and professional orientation’. At the end of the second year, the schools advise their pupils about the type of education that is the most suitable for them. They can choose between general secondary education (havo or vwo) and preparatory secondary vocational education (vmbo).

3.1 General secondary education (havo or vwo)

General secondary education consists of two types of education:

  • Pre-university education (vwo), which lasts six years; this comprises the ‘gymnasium’ that includes Latin and Greek, the ‘atheneum’ that does not include Latin and Greek, and the ‘lyceum’, which is a combination of both;
  • Senior secondary general education (havo), which lasts five years.

In the upper cycle of  havo (4th and 5th year) and  vwo (4th, 5th and 6th year) the pupils choose subject combinations, the so-called profiles. Pupils can choose between the profiles culture and society, economics and society, science and health and science and technology. Each profile includes a common component that is the same for all pupils, a component that is specific for the chosen profile, and an optional component that pupils are free to choose.

3.2 Preparatory secondary vocational education (vmbo)

The vmbo, which lasts four years, consists of four sectors: technology, care and welfare, economics and agriculture. Within their own sector pupils can choose between four learning pathways: 

  • The theoretical programme ('theoretische leerweg') prepares pupils for middle management training and professional training in senior secondary vocational education (mbo) or for havo
  • The combined programme ('gemengde leerweg') prepares pupils for middle management training and professional training in senior secondary vocational education (mbo)
  • The advanced vocational programme ('kaderberoepsgerichte leerweg') prepares pupils for middle management and professional training in senior secondary vocational education (mbo)
  • The basic vocational programme ('basisberoepsgerichte leerweg') prepares pupils for basic vocational training in senior secondary vocational education (mbo)

Learning pathways are tracks that lead to senior secondary vocational education (mbo). Each learning pathway represents a different way of learning. For each learning pathway and for each sector groups of subjects are determined. A group of subjects consists of a common component, a sector-related component and an optional component. The common component is obligatory for all pupils and consists of Dutch, English, social studies, physical education and fine arts. The pupils take a central school-leaving examination for the subjects Dutch and English. For social studies, physical education and fine arts the pupils have to pass a school exam. The sector-related component is obligatory for all pupils in the specific sector (technology, care and welfare, economics and agriculture). For the optional component pupils can choose from a number of subjects depending on the chosen learning pathway.

4. Senior secondary vocational education (mbo)

Senior secondary vocational education is provided in two learning pathways: the work-based pathway (bbl) and the school-based pathway ( bol ). Both pathways are integrated in the national qualification structure and offer equal opportunities. Both pathways lead to the same qualifications and diploma. In the workbased pathway, the student spends at least 60 percent of the time in a so-called work placement company. In the school-based pathway, the amount of time which is spent in practice varies between 20 and 60 percent.

Senior secondary vocational education comprises five types of courses:

  • Entry training (1 year; qualification level 1)
  • Basic vocational training (2 years; qualification level 2)
  • Professional training (3 years; qualification level 3)
  • Middle management training (3 or 4 years; qualification level 4)<
  • Specialist training (1 year after a relevant professional training course; qualification level 4)


Level Training programme Duration Admssion requirements Characteristics
1 Entry training 1 year No admission
Carries out simple tasks under supervision.
Transfer to qualification level 2.
2 Basic
2 years Diploma vmbo, basic vocational programme
Proof of transition havo /vwo year 3 to year 4
Diploma mbo qualification level 1
Carries out executive tasks.
Responsible for his own job.
Transfer to qualification level 3.
3 Professional
3 years Diploma vmbo, theoretical, combined or advanced vocational
Proof of transition havo /vwo year 3 to year 4
Diploma mbo qualification level 2
Accounts for his/her activities to colleagues and monitors and guides the activities of others.
Drafts work preparation procedures.
Transfer to qualification level 4.
4 Middle
3 of 4 years Diploma vmbo, theoretical, combined or advanced vocational programme
Diploma mbo qualification level 3
Has his/her own responsibilities, in executive, formal and organizational sense.
Works out procedures.
Transfer to higher professional education (hbo).
5 Specialist
1 year Diploma mbo qualification level 3 or 4 in a relevant field of study Has his/her own responsibilities, in executive, formal and organizational sense.
Works out procedures.
Transfer to higher professional education (hbo).

5. Higher education

Higher education in the Netherlands consists of higher professional education (hbo) and academic higher education (wo). Higher professional education includes associate degree programmes.

5.1 Higher professional education (hbo)

Higher professional education (hbo) is a more practice-oriented type of higher education. Its main objective is preparation for professional practice and entry of the labour market. Higher professional education is normally offered at universities of applied science (hogescholen), but may also be offered by academic universities. Educational programmes in hbo last two or four years.
A two-year programme at a university of applied science is an associate degree. The level is between senior secondary vocational education on qualification level 4 and hbo bachelor. Associate degree programmes are primarily meant for students with a diploma of senior secondary vocational education at qualification level 4 or for people who have a couple of years of working experience. With an associate degree, they can improve their chances at the labour market. After finishing the program, they are eligible to enter a bachelor programme.
To enter an associate degree programme, a havo diploma or a senior secondary vocational education diploma at qualification level 4 is required.
Bachelor programmes in higher professional education last four years (240 ECTS) and they are divided into a propaedeutic year (the first year), followed by a main phase of three years. Usually in the third year, students perform a mandatory internship approximately 9 months to gain practical experience. On the basis of this internship, they complete a thesis or final project. Hbo is offered in seven sectors: teacher training, higher education in agriculture, higher technical and scientific education, higher education in health care, higher education in economics and management, higher education in social and community work and higher education in fine arts and performing arts.

A diploma of senior general secondary education (havo) or pre-university education (vwo) is required for admission to four year hbo programmes, in some cases with additional requirements regarding specific subjects. A diploma of senior secondary vocational education (mbo) at qualification level 4 also gives access to hbo. Graduates are conferred the degree of Bachelor, stating the professional field in which the degree was earned (Bachelor of Economics, Bachelor of Education). Graduates of  hbo bachelor programmes can also still opt for the ‘old’ titles, namely ‘baccalaureus (bc.)' and ‘ingenieur (ing.)’. Universities of applied science can also offer master programmes, which last one to three years.

5.3 Academic higher education (wo)

Academic higher education ( wo) offers educational programmes with the main objective of independent exercise of scholarly activities or the professional application of academic knowledge. Academic higher education is normally offered by academic universities, but may be offered by universities of professional education. A pre-university education (vwo) diploma or a propaedeutic  hbo year is required for admission to wo, sometimes with additional requirements regarding specific subjects.

In the bachelor/master structure, study programmes are divided into a bachelor programme of three years (180 ECTS), followed by a master programme of: one year (most programmes, 60 ECTS), two years (technical and scientific programmes, dentistry programme, 120 ECTS) or three years ((veterinary) medicine programme, pharmacy programme, 180 ECTS). The bachelor programme may have a propaedeutic phase and, depending on the institution, students are offered education in predominantly one field of study or in a major and minor (the so-called major/minor structure). Graduates are conferred the degree of bachelor, indicating the nature of the degree, 'of arts' or 'of science', depending on the field of study. With a bachelor degree, students can transfer to a master programme, but a bachelor degree can also be regarded as the end of formal education. Upon graduation, the students are conferred the degree of master, indicating the nature of the degree, ‘of arts’ or ‘of science’, depending on the field of study. Graduates of current master programmes may still use the ‘old’ university titles, namely ‘doctorandus (drs.)’, ‘ingenieur (ir.)’ and ‘meester (mr.)’. A master degree, both from  hbo and from  wo, can give access to the pursuit of a doctorate, which generally lasts 4 years and leads to a Doctor (dr.) degree.

6. Adult education

Adult education is offered to adults from the age of 18. The main types of adult education are:

  • Dutch as a second language: this programme is meant for people for whom Dutch is not their mother tongue
  • General secondary education for adults (VAVO): focuses on a diploma or modular certificate at vmbo, havo or vwo level.
  • Dutch and mathematics education: meant to improve the participants' language and mathematics skills.

7. Dutch qualifications framework (NLQF) and European qualifications framework (EQF)

The Dutch qualifications framework (NLQF) consists of eight levels and is connected to the European qualifications framework (EQF). The Dutch educational system has been classified in NLQF- and EQF-levels as follows:

Education NLQF-niveau EQF-niveau
vmbo basic vocational programme, mbo qualification level 1 (entry level training) 1 1
vmbo advanced vocational programme, vmbo combined programme, vmbo theoretical programme, mbo qualification level 2 (basic vocational training) 2 2
mbo qualification level 3 (professional training) 3 3
havo, mbo qualification level 4 (middle management or specialist training) 4 4
vwo 4+ 4
associate degree 5 5
bachelor (hbo of wo) 6 6
master (hbo of wo) 7 7
doctorate 8 8