Talented students need to be challenged and encouraged to do their very best. This is being recognized more and more in the Netherlands. In addition to the importance for the students themselves, it is also particularly important to society at large because today’s students are the future. Our country will benefit if these talented people are challenged at an early stage to reach for even greater heights.
Traditionally, the Netherlands has a culture of egalitarianism in education. Various inspections and accreditation authorities guarantee that all educational institutions offer a good basic level, accessible to all students. Nonetheless, a relatively large number of students do not feel sufficiently inspired or challenged. A culture of inclusion prevails: while attempts are made to help less talented students keep pace with the basic curriculum, the facilities to encourage high-potential students to achieve excellence are insufficient. In recent years, a shift in Dutch policy has taken place, due to the emphasis on the knowledge economy, the importance of fostering and promoting talent is now being recognized. This cultural shift in the education sector deserves support, so that talented students may properly and genuinely do their best, showing willingness and motivation, and achieving excellent results accordingly.
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The Ministry of Education, Culture and Science established the Sirius Program in 2008 as an official initiative designed to address this issue. The Ministry invited all higher education institutions (research universities as well as universities of applied sciences) to submit a plan for the promotion of excellence, either independently or in collaboration with other institutions. The largest portion of the Sirius budget had been earmarked for the Bachelor’s program that was launched in 2008 (€ 48.8 million). The Master’s program, with a budget of € 12.2 million, started in the spring of 2010. These funds provided the first incentive aiming at inspiring the top 5% of the students to achieve excellence. The Sirius Program had a double focus: on the one hand on institutions’ goals, their vision for the whole institution and the performances they wished to achieve (including the feasibility of those performance targets), and on the other hand on the learning function of the program as a whole. The Sirius Programm is stopped by 2016. Twelve universities and eleven universities of applied sciences have taken part in the Sirius Program. The knowledge from the Sirius Program, which was facilitated and supported by PBT (Platform Beta Technique) is spread through audit reports, publications and meetings, can be found on this website.
Sirius Main Features:
The Sirius Program was aimed to respond to the needs of higher education, which is why it was designed based on input meetings with board members of institutions and experts from the sector. The main features were:
Individual choices are key
Just like its student population, the Dutch higher education system is diverse and multi-faceted. The Sirius Program therefore gave research universities and universities of applied sciences the freedom to define the concepts of ‘excellence’ and ‘excellent student’ according to their own profile and vision. This freedom also applies to the manner in which students qualify for participation, and to the nature of the activities undertaken by the institution to encourage excellence. As a result, excellence is defined and promoted in a variety of ways in the Sirius Program.
Experience with promoting excellence was already been gathered on a small scale in the Netherlands. However, the Sirius Program was actually intended to tackle the subject at institution level. This is the focus that institutions have taken in their applications, which meant involving at least 5% of the student population.
The Sirius Program took a performance-oriented approach: agreements are made individually with each institution regarding their intended achievements in the program. One of the most important criteria when assessing applications was the extent to which these achievements were a) new, and b) higher.
In consultation with the institutions, it was decided not to distribute the available budget equally among all higher education institutions; but they competed for funding. Nor was there any subsidy limit per application: each institution ensured 50% co-financing. The most important criterion in regard to budget was whether the requested budget was necessary to achieve the results stated.
The Sirius Program worked according to the ‘high trust’ principle. The institution’s vision and desired achievements (including their feasibility) were the key points in assessing the application – the manner in which institutions intend to realize these achievements was up to them. The amount of bureaucracy involved in justification was therefore limited. Annual monitoring was focused on progress towards realizing the performances, and the subsequent period of reflection gave the institution the opportunity ‘to look at itself in a mirror’. The Science and Technology Platform (Platform Bèta Techniek), which included the ‘Sirius team’ implementing the program, had extensive experience with this approach. For the monitoring activities the team brought in an external group of experts to offer advice. Several members of this group were involved in the assessing of the applications as well.
Statutory room to experiment
Every pupil who has successfully passed his final exams in the right school type may enroll in Dutch universities. Therefore universities may not further select students for enrollment, and tuition fees are stipulated by the Ministry. Especially for the Sirius Program, room to experiment had been created in the form of broader statutory options for selecting students (for both Bachelor’s and Master’s programs) and increases in tuition fees (for Master’s programs).
Ultimately, the Sirius Program had intended to generate insight into successful innovation and other strategies for the enhancement of excellence in higher education. The identification of existing obstacles was an envisaged part of this process, making it very important to further encourage knowledge exchange regarding the promotion of excellence, based on the results of reflection. The Sirius team organized opportunities for knowledge exchange, such as conferences and studytrips. The participating institutions also organized meetings and conferences to share their lessons learned with others. The program intended to bring those involved into contact with one another and place relevant issues in the spotlight. So that not only the institutions involved in the program learned, but also the entire sector and the national government as well.
The Sirius Programm is stopped by 2016. Twelve universities and eleven universities of applied sciences have taken part in the Sirius Program. The knowledge from the Sirius Program, which was facilitated and supported by PBT (Platform Beta Technique) is spread through audit reports, publications and meetings, can be found on this website.