28 May 2019 • HOP, Melanie Zierse
The differences between universities of applied sciences and research universities are not that big
When we look at labour market access, the difference between universities of applied sciences and research universities is not as big as we tend to think. Research conducted by the ROA confirms that the Dutch system has never been extremely binary.
Professional education versus research education. Practice versus theory. These are some of the most commonly used contrasts to describe the difference between universities of applied sciences (HBO) and research universities (WO). But is this image accurate?
Researchers Jim Allen and Barbara Belfi from the Research Centre for Education and Labour Market (ROA) in Maastricht have their reservations. They compared the labour market position of graduates from universities of applied sciences and research universities by analysing all data compiled in the last twenty years in the HBO Monitor and the National Alumni Survey. Recent graduates from universities of applied sciences and research universities answered questions about their position on the labour market and the degree programme they completed.
“When we look at labour market access, the difference between universities of applied sciences and research universities is more a matter of accents than sharp contrasts,” the researchers write in the journal TH&MA Hoger Onderwijs.
They compared the possible ‘escape options’ for graduates who are unable to find a job within the professional field of their degree. The general impression is that, compared to research universities, universities of applied sciences tend to prepare students more for a specific profession. If that were the case, wouldn’t the ‘escape options’ for university of applied sciences graduates be more limited? But what is the reality? The difference is quite minimal and often works out in favour of university of applied sciences graduates.
“In discussions the contrast is often presented as bigger than it really is. That’s why we believe it’s important to share these numbers,” explain the researchers.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a difference between HBO and WO. The completed degree programme usually plays a particularly important role in the comparison. “A WO medical degree programme is more profession-oriented than most HBO degree programmes. However, most economics degree programmes at the university of applied sciences prepare students just as well for the professional field as most research universities,” according to Allen and Belfi.
The biggest differences can be observed in the field of behaviour & society, art and language & culture. “Degree programmes in language & culture at research universities teach a discipline, rather than a profession so there are no specific corresponding professions. We see the same thing in the sectors behaviour & society,” explain the researchers. “Unlike at research universities, the universities of applied sciences offer degree programmes that prepare students for clearly defined positions in the care and wellness sector.”
A frequently heard assumption in the current discussion about the binary system is that the universities of applied sciences and the research universities are becoming more similar. But the ROA researchers also want to qualify that impression. “Both forms of education are undergoing changes, but there is no reason to assume that they are significantly more similar today than they were in the past,” they write in their article.
Graduates from both education systems feel that the universities of applied sciences and the research universities could learn a lot from each other. University of applied sciences graduates would like a greater focus and bigger challenge through more challenging and in-depth content. Academics state they would like less emphasis on theory.
To a certain extent it’s possible that both forms of education will grow closer together,” say Allen en Belfi. The universities of applied sciences are already undertaking some efforts to close the gap. “For example, the universities of applied sciences are placing a greater emphasis on research. But we are also seeing a trend to begin a degree programme with a broader focus and let students only specialise in their final year. Some degree programmes at research universities are trying to develop a closer relationship with the professional sector, something that is often seen as more typical of universities of applied sciences.