From mbo to hbo and beyond: designing for better transitions in Dutch education

Among all first-year students following one of the study programs within the Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries (FDMCI) at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam (HvA) (English: Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences), a considerable amount of students previously studied at an MBO (vocational degree) and are now transitioning into a higher level of education. This transition, however, is not always easy: roughly 40 % of former MBO students drop out in their first year.

Reasons for this high drop-out rate vary – The HvA often requires a very different way of learning than MBO students have been accustomed to, a lot more independence is expected from students than earlier, and the pressure to perform is high, to name a few examples – but what they all share in common, is how vastly different the HvA environment is from MBO-level education. Sometimes, therefore, students feel ashamed to reach out, are lost in the curriculum, or unsure whether they are struggling to begin with. Much research has already been done on the subject, and there are various support systems within the FDMCI, but the drop-out rates remain nonetheless more or less the same.

To contribute to closing that gap, our team at Design Across Cultures here at the Digital Society School has paired up with the HvA. Over the course of 20 weeks, our team will work on the following challenge:


How might we design a solution with physical-digital elements that can signal MBO students’ experience of their transition into HBO-level education, highlighting (collective) challenges and well-being?

Here’s what we mean by…

  • signal: making the students’ experience understandable to themselves and HvA support staff.
  • transition: the (changing) expectations and habits of students as well as the changing expectations that others (e.g. family, the University, society) have from these students.



The Dutch educational system is one of a kind: few other countries have so many different levels in which students get categorised as they move from elementary school to high school, and from high school to higher education. Starting around the age of 12, all Dutch students are required to take the Eindtoets Basisonderwijs (previously called CITO exam) during their final year of elementary school, in which they are tested on a variety of cognitive abilities, such as math, grammar, and critical thinking. Each student then continues their educational trajectory in the level that suits their abilities, in which there is a clear distinction between students that are more practical and students that are more theoretical – the idea being that each student has a place.

Around the age of 16-18, when students enter higher education, there are three distinguished levels:

  1. MBO — Vocational education (Diploma). Provided by e.g. ROC-institutions
  2. HBO — Higher professional education (Bachelor/Master). Provided by Applied Science institutions, e.g. Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
  3. WO — academic higher education (Bachelor/Master/PhD). Provided by Universities, e.g. the University of Amsterdam.

Although the system is very efficient, many also experience it as rigid and normative. As a university student, for example, you can always start an extra degree at MBO level without any further requirements; as an MBO student, on the other hand, you need to follow years of extra education before you are eligible for university – In an economy that is increasingly ‘knowledge’-based, there is an implicit assumption built into the educational system that higher education is better by definition – and the definition of a ‘good’ student inextricably linked to cognitive abilities. In reality, however, the success of transitioning into a new level education appears to be not so much reliant on cognitive abilities as much as it is dependent on skills, environment, and a sense of belonging. MBO pays a lot of attention to practical skills and lots of supervision; as you move to hbo or university, a lot more value is placed on theoretical skills and independence. In other words, while there is certainly a possibility to move between various levels, expectation management changes drastically when transitioning into a different kind of expectation.

The role of culture

Let’s talk about this project in light of our track: Design Across Cultures. What has this to do with culture in the first place?

Culture is defined as the ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular group of people or society.

~ Oxford English dictionary

In other words, ‘culture’ isn’t just about people from different countries around the world, but also about smaller groups and individuals. We can view the MBO as having one culture and the HBO as having another culture.

These two educational strata involve different ways of thinking and doing. A sense of belonging is crucial here: it becomes difficult to navigate yourself through this new world when you are so unfamiliar with its mindsets, practices, and network of people.  The transition from MBO to HBO is equivalent to the transition from one culture to another and this transition may involve changing habits and expectations. In this project, we are exploring the collective challenges and well-being of people who are going through this transition from one cultural environment to another.

Stay tuned for updates!