Going Against the Grain: Why Some Students are Rejecting the University System

By Tal Ben Yakir

Collage by Hal Tatham Wiersma

— October, 2012. Naroush Nelson is taking his first history exam. He spent a week studying the material and is able to recite each chapter word for word. A week after the test, he gets back his grade. A five out of ten. At the top of the page the teacher has written: next time try a bit harder. If you put in the work you’ll get a good grade, I’m sure of it! It is meant encouragingly, but Naroush goes home crying. 

This was how the next seven years of high school went for Naroush. Diagnosed with ADHD at a young age, he spent his high school years taking Ritalin six days a week, putting in hours of work without recognition. He had private tutoring five days a week, but only barely passed his tests. When he was sixteen, he switched to a private school, the kind that cost over €20,000 per year. 

When his final exams had passed and he got his diploma, Naroush burned all of his old essays and exams in the backyard, while his mom passed him the lighter. He took a gap year and spent his time getting a certificate to be a personal trainer, working in construction and training for a triathlon. When summer came by, he sat down and thought hard about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. 

Would he go study at university somewhere? He realised he liked building things, tinkering with his hands. The first place he considered was Delft University, for a bachelor in industrial design. “It was just so expected that I would go to university, you know?” Naroush says. “Everyone always assumed it, people would always ask me, ‘so where are you going to study?’” 

After looking into the program, Naroush realised that he did not want to do an industrial design bachelor. “Honestly, the idea of going back to school terrified me. I thought about having to sit still and listen for eight hours a day, having to take Ritalin again just so I could focus,” he confesses. So he did not apply, and stopped looking at university bachelors altogether. 

Then, he remembered an internship he had done when he was fifteen at Lippens, a goldsmith in Amsterdam. At the end of that month-long internship his mentor had sat him down for his review and told him that he was very impressed with Naroush’s work. “You have the focus for it,” he told him. It was the first time Naroush had heard anyone say that to him. 

Now, Naroush is studying in a goldsmithing school in Schoonhoven. He explains that for the first time in years, he actually feels like he is good at school. He enjoys his classes, he’s able to focus. He is enrolled in an advanced three year program, designed especially for people who did the Dutch VWO high school level— the most theoretical out of the Dutch high-school levels. He holds up a ring of metal, an assignment they had to do for class. Make a basic, but perfectly round circle. Naroush smiles proudly; “Mine was the best of the whole class.” His whole face lights up when he says it.

When asked if he has any regrets about not going to university, his answer is no. “I would have loved to study anthropology or philosophy, but I wouldn’t enjoy it the way I would study it now. For years I thought there was something wrong with me. School made me think I was stupid.” He says he came to realise that high school and university only value a specific kind of intelligence, and he believes there are different kinds of intelligence, such as creative intelligence or physical capabilities. The only thing he got out of school, Naroush says, is a degree that gave him the opportunity to study. And that is the big problem, according to him: “I never went to school to learn. I went to school to get a piece of paper.”

Jetty van der Meer has worked as a career advisor for twenty years. She has helped many people find jobs, from university graduates to refugees and from those with nothing but a high school diploma to people with decades of working experience. According to Van der Meer, people in the Netherlands are obsessed with certificates; they believe that if you do not have a piece of paper to show for your work, it must not have been valuable. “That is something I always try to teach my clients: that your self worth is not tied to a diploma, and that there are more ways to get a job than just by having studied for it.”

Kids in high school, Van der Meer says, are not properly informed of their options. In the Netherlands, high school education is divided into three levels. Practical education, called VMBO, gives students a degree with which they can enroll into trade school. The middle level, HAVO, allows students to go into higher vocational education afterwards. The most theoretical level of high school is VWO, which prepares students for a future in academics. This is the only high school degree with which students can immediately enroll in a university without having to take years of extra schooling beforehand. Van der Meer says that especially at the VWO level students are expected to go into university and don’t receive information about other paths they could choose.

Why are students not informed of all the options out there? Van der Meer has an answer; it is because, in the Netherlands, we regard university education as superior to trade school or vocational training, and by extension, VWO as superior to HAVO and VMBO. Students in VWO, she says, are seen as this small elite group that has the privilege of being able to enroll in university here; how could they not make use of this amazing opportunity? “We really need to get rid of the idea that one level is better than another, it’s ridiculously outdated,” she complains.

 Van der Meer adds that it is also impractical; everyone is being pushed to pursue a university education, but the job market cannot support it. Employers are calling for practically educated people, yet there is this trend for overspecialization. While bachelors becoming the new high school diploma, university graduates struggle to find jobs in their fields.

So, why do people keep opting for university over trade schools or vocational training? Van der Meer explains that — while it is harder to find a job in those fields— the jobs for higher educated people pay better. “And that comes down again to how we as a society value university over other forms of education,” she says.

Someone who experienced the push towards university education firsthand is Fionn Edward Taylor English. Fionn is a third year student at Amsterdam University College. He wanted to quit university in his second year, but ended up staying because he did not want to “take the risk or the damage to my family relationships”. He explains that if he had quit, his parents would have cut him off, so he decided that with one year to go, he might as well stay.

The reason Fionn wanted to quit was that he did not feel he was really learning what he needed at university. Fionn believes that for many professions, university is in actuality not the best way to learn the material. Universities like MIT have all of their courses published online and the internet contains resources for learning whatever you want, he says. The main thing you get out of a university degree is a piece of paper that proves your authenticity, he feels. He believes education should prepare us to apply skill and knowledge to broad fields, in order to be versatile on the job market. This broader approach is something he sees in the liberal arts bachelor, which is why Fionn is more positive towards AUC than other universities. 

Gilad Zuckerman, is a twenty year old musician, who studied at an international school in Amsterdam and is now doing a music production course. For him, the lack of creative freedom and personal incentives was the reason he used to hate high school, which he graduated from in 2019. Back then he was a very unmotivated kid. He was labelled a lazy, rebellious troublemaker. ”I really like learning. And I knew that I could do those assignments, that I could not just memorise the material, but actually learn and apply it. But because I wasn’t allowed to do them in my own way and pace, it all became… sucky.” 

After high school, he took a gap year. He thought he would work on making music and use his time well. But he explains that he had romanticized this idea of complete freedom so much in his head that for the first six months he did nothing. School never taught him how to focus and get himself motivated, so he did not really know how to do that. Looking back, Gilad says he realises those months were a good thing, since it taught him how valuable a skill it is to have a good work ethic. He says, “For the last six months of my gap year, I had this fire under my ass and I wanted to work twice as hard”. 

University was not an option for Gilad, since he knew he wanted to do something with music. Yet even if it weren’t for that, he says he doesn’t know whether he would have enjoyed university. “In school, if you ask why you need to do something, the answer is: because it will be on the test, because you need it for your diploma, and if you don’t get a diploma you’re gonna fail at life.” He criticizes this last idea, saying it is absolutely not true. He contemplates whether part of him maybe wants to disprove that assumption, by being successful on his own terms.

Within the Dutch high school system, students who seriously struggle in their education-level are advised to switch to a more practical level. Yet at times, students do not make the advised switch, but take on extra classes or private tutoring in order to keep up. These classes are very pricey, yet parents choose this expense over sending their child to a different level. 

This was also the case for Naroush. His mother, Ashkaine Hora Adema, explains her reasoning. “I still doubt whether I made the right decision by keeping him in VWO, but I wanted him to have all the options after high school. Even if he would end up not doing anything academic, the VWO helps a lot with getting a job in general.” 

But, she stresses, she did not care whether Naroush would go to university after school. She received a lot of criticism for that from other parents. She says that this truly shows the flaw with our university system; “It is not just with the system itself, but in the way our culture idolizes “higher” education— especially parents.”  

Hora Adema’s oldest child, Ardash, was in some ways the opposite of Naroush in high school. She received high grades, she was an exemplary student. Yet after graduating, she wanted to study at the fashion academy. Hora Adema says a lot of people told her what a shame that was. “Even my friends would ask me ‘you’re not gonna let your child do that, are you?’” Hora Adema states that she herself doesn’t care what other parents think, but that it made Ardash and Naroush doubt themselves and their choices. 

“For a lot of parents,” Hora Adema says, “whether your child goes to university is a matter of ego. Parents feel like it means they have succeeded. We tend to see university as synonymous with intelligence, but that is just really not true. I know plenty of people with a university education who are dumber than rocks, and vice versa too.”

Hora Adema thinks we should change the focus from university education to general self-development. That is something she finds very important. “I don’t care whether my kids go to university, as long as they keep on developing themselves as people. University is a good place to do that, but it is not the only place.” Hora Adema herself studied psychology and three years of medicine, and says she would definitely recommend a university education — as long as it fits someone’s interests. But she says she wants to get rid of the idea that a university degree is necessary for a good life. 

Emma Cohen de Lara, a professor at Amsterdam University College, agrees. “Life is not just about being successful in a career or in society, it’s much bigger than that.” Cohen de Lara co-authored the book Back to the core: Rethinking core texts in liberal arts and sciences education in Europe, and is involved with different educational associations and an educational consulting group. She says that what we need most is a public debate on how we understand the university degree and what we understand university education to do.

“Universities are not a public institution, so they have to legitimize how they spend their money,” she explains. “In order to do that, they want to present tangible results. Therefore, universities want to put everything in boxes. They want to label learning outcomes, the way they grade, the kind of assignments that they expect.” Cohen de Lara says that we should ask ourselves whether that is really where universities should go. And if it’s not, then how to change that culture? 

She herself has a few ideas about it, and she adds that while it might be idealistic, she has not been the only one to argue for this. She thinks we should slowly move our universities towards becoming an academic community where students and teachers are in conversation about the subject matter. “Learning outcomes and assessment standards do have their validity, and we do need some of them” she says, “but communities are based more on relationships and conversation. As such, they also allow more individuality to shine through.” She also criticizes the way the grading system curbs creativity. Students do what they think the teacher wants them to do in order to get a good grade. At times the grades seem more important than the actual learning.

Cohen de Lara explains why, despite the fact that the problems within the university system are well known, they remain unsolved. “The system has all these incentives built in that are preventing people from doing something about it,”. She says that even her director of education might, indirectly, ask her about her learning outcomes or about her students’ grades. “So if I want a promotion or I want to keep my job, I have to actually start producing these little boxes into which I have to put my students.”

Despite the lack of creative stimulation, Cohen de Lara does not agree with Fionn that many university degrees are useless. “I do think that a university degree brings students — oftentimes unaware — up to a certain level thinking that they are less likely to obtain outside. You come into the habit of asking questions, it teaches you academic thinking.” 

Cohen de Lara says that although  jobs in academia are very limited right now, that does not mean we should not go to university;  “There are two sides to it: one side is that people might be taking themselves out of the job market because they’re too specialized. But the other side is that sometimes specialization does actually mean that you learn to think in a certain critical way, which can be put to good use.”

At his workbench in the goldsmithing school, Naroush is filing away at a metal plate. He is doing so with extreme precision and focus, measuring every few seconds, then filing again. During his break, he tells the story of his first exam here in this school, regarding workplace safety measures. “It was the easiest exam I have taken in my life, but while I was sitting at my desk, suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I was hyperventilating, my vision went out of focus. I was so traumatized by my experiences in high school, that I was having a panic attack.” He was so stressed, that he convinced himself it would be like that first history exam years back in high school. 

Naroush puts it like this; a school system which tries to fit everyone into one mold, which does not take into account different strengths and weaknesses is not a successful system. Cohen de Lara nods her head to that. “We need to open up the discussion more, and universities need to be open to that critique. And then slowly, we might be able to affect change.”


This is an article made in collaboration with AUC’s Journalism course of 2020-2021.

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