Foundation Year International Students VU

Name of the institution(s)

Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Qualification level concerned


Country concerned



Mission/Role of Professional Higher Education


Access, social dimension, inclusion


The objective of VASVU is to provide access to university education for students living in the Netherlands who have had schooling abroad but no direct entry into Dutch higher education. This intervention is part of the vision of the university to contribute to the community through education and research.

VASVU made a conscious decision to not specify a maximum target with the intention to provide everyone who is eligible with the opportunities to enter a university. VASVU wants to be able to provide this accommodation. They did however specify a minimum target of 15 participants per group, with a minimum of 3 groups. Each group focuses on specific set of courses.

VASVU is part of a bigger and more holistic approach and wants to provide the participants with not only the basic skills in their preparation for Dutch higher education, but more so with the knowledge, insights and skills to navigate the Dutch higher educational system in particular and Dutch society in general. The program provides a Dutch language course and offers a specific set of courses that prepares the participants for the desired studies. On average VASVU reaches 50 students per year. In 2015 VASVU accommodated 5 groups learning the basics of Dutch at the VU before entering the program and 3 groups of 10-25 participants during the program.

The target group are persons who are living in the Netherlands, who have had schooling abroad but no direct entry into Dutch higher education. In practice the majority of this target group are refugee students. Other participants are children of immigrants and partners of Dutch citizens. In regards to refugee students, about 50 students participate per year from countries like Afghanistan, Burundi, Eritrea, Iraq or Syria. In regards to children of immigrants and partners of Dutch citizens, about 10 students participate per year.

The age of the participants ranges from 18-28, with the majority of the participants between the age of 20-22. A small part of the participants is above the age of 40. 10-20% are students with children. About 80% of the participants are refugees. Refugee students are eligible for participation when they have formally requested asylum in The Netherlands, so they don’t have to have a residence permit in order to participate. So while they cannot participate as undocumented students, they are allowed to participate as asylum seekers without a residence permit.

The students enjoy a full time course which covers subject material: Dutch, English, Mathematics and History and Sciences as needed as well as extensive attention for study skills, orientation on study and society, computer skills and intensive tutoring. This combination of content and skills is coordinated by faculty members into a comprehensive and coherent program. VASVU has arranged for faculty meetings to take place every three weeks, so teachers are able to monitor and align their classes.

VASVU strives for a learning environment that is a reflection of the learning environment the participants will enter once they start their studies at a university. In this regard teachers are free to maintain their own teaching style and instructional design. The participants therefore engage in a range of learning styles and assignments depending on the course and teacher.

The final output is the successful completion of the program. About 50% of the participants go on to start their studies at the VU university. About 20-25% go on to start their studies at another institution, because the desired study isn’t available at the VU or the participants want to attend a university of applied sciences instead of a research university like the VU. The remaining students choose to take more preparation time before they continue their studies and start their studies at a later point in time.

The sources for funding have been fairly stable during the past thirty years and look equally sustainable now and to the near future. This stability is ensured because of the institutional commitment to continue the program and the centralized funds that have been made available every year to support the program.

Lessons learnt

The biggest challenges the participants face are not academic challenges, but personal circumstances that prevent them from focusing on their studies. Examples of challenges many participants face are limited financial resources, having to deal with traumatic experiences and family circumstances and having to get used to the Dutch educational system. The main challenge is learning the Dutch language, for most participants it’s a means of communication and not necessarily a must to learn the content of the courses. It is however a strict and basic demand, because it prepares them for the studies after the program that are usually in Dutch.

Additional information

VASVU was initiated by the university, university staff and students in 1980, when the VU university celebrated its 100th anniversary. At the time there were refugees who wanted to enter the university, but didn’t have the required preparation in terms of language and academic skills. Since the VU has always had a social mission to society, the people from the university wanted to set up a project as an anniversary gift. It started out as an experiment that was supposed to last three years, but ended up being prolonged until it became a sustainable program embedded in the university.

Key drivers were the student counsellors for foreign students and students and staff themselves, who noticed a growing need for a comprehensive approach that addressed academic preparation for entering the Dutch higher educational system. In the first years students and staff collected money to fund the program, later on the funding was centralized to ensure a sustainable program. The VASVU program aligns with the institutional priority to contribute to society, to actively engage in internationalization and to provide a diverse and inclusive learning environment for all students.

VASVU isn’t based on a particular theoretical framework, but does screen teachers to find one common factor: a balance between empathy and rigor. Teachers need to be able to work with students from diverse backgrounds in an international setting, they need to enjoy teaching and they need the patience and understanding to work with students who aren’t always able to attend classes due to personal circumstances. Teachers need to understand the context of the students and have to be willing to take on a proactive approach in case of problems to look for a solution. In practice these teachers are often professionals who have either worked with international students or who have had an international background or experience themselves. Another basic requirement is having a master’s degree, because teachers need to be able to interact with university professors to discuss the alignment of the preparation and study courses.

In regards to implementation of the program, VASVU collaborates with different departments within and outside of the university. They work together with faculty to discuss the admission requirements for the desired studies and align the preparation courses with those requirements. They work together with student counsellors for student support, with human resources for staff support and with the financial and student administration. VASVU also works together with VU students, who have taken initiative to set up a buddy system for the VASVU participants.

Outside of the university VASVU collaborates with DUO (Dienst Uitvoering Onderwijs), an executive department of government for education. DUO finances and informs participants in education and educational institutions and allows participants of VASVU to get a loan for the course fees, which become a gift once they have successfully completed the program.

VASVU has the direct support of the municipality of Amsterdam. The municipality of Amsterdam has signed a so-called covenant (administrative agreement) that allows participants to maintain their social benefits while studying. With other municipalities VASVU has to negotiate these terms per student, even though there is no covenant with other municipalities they do eventually support the program by allowing the participants to start their studies while maintaining their social benefits. In general the municipalities are benevolent and want to ensure the participants get a chance to pursue their academic goals.

In terms of local, regional or national policies it’s hard to fit the participants of VASVU in a category and therefore find political support. On a national level, the participants belong to a group that doesn’t fit any current legislation. The law on integration provides some basis, but doesn’t relate to travel expenses or livelihood for instance. On a regional and local level, municipalities do have a task to provide shelter and support for refugees, but this task is more focused on access to the labour market and less so on access to an educational track. So there’s little political basis to address the issue.

Contact details

Kees Smit,

Vrije Universiteit


First collected by

IDEAS project (Identifying Effective Approaches to Enhancing the Social Dimension), 2013-2015


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