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Excellence programmes in higher education:

Selection of students, effects on students, and the broader impact on higher education institutions

excellence higher education

Publication of final results: reports and factsheets

Between October 2015 and December 2019, ROA, KBA Nijmegen, CHEPS, and HAN jointly conducted a research project into the effects of excellence programmes in higher education in the Netherlands, as part of a research programme funded by NRO. After all, even though excellence programmes have been implemented widely in Dutch higher education institutions, little was known about the effects of these programmes for students and educational institutions.

The final results of this project are now available in three reports (one on selectivity and effectiveness; one on employability; and one on steering mechanisms), plus one overarching summary report in which the main findings from the three reports are connected. Also, based on the results, we prepared two factsheets (one aimed at students, and one aimed at higher education institutions) to provide key stakeholders with concise information about the implications of the project’s main findings.

Download factsheets (in Dutch):

Download reports (in Dutch)

Brief project summary

Research questions

We addressed the following central research questions in this project:

  1. How can the selection of candidates for excellence programmes be improved and which instruments provide the best match between person and programme?
  2. What is the individual added value of participation in excellence programmes for students on both cognitive and non-cognitive skills?
  3. To what extent and in which ways do educational choices influence the employability of recent university graduates, as evident from the hiring considerations of employers?
  4. What are the impact effects of excellence programmes on higher education institutions and on regular education programmes?
  5. Which steering mechanisms can an institution employ to use innovations from excellence programmes in the organization and in regular education programmes?


To answer these research questions, we collected rich data on a variety of stakeholders. We conducted questionnaires and tests among students more than 1200 students, both at the start and at the end of excellence programmes, and both among students in excellence programmes and among a control group; we collected data from student administrations; we requested selection judgments from selectors of excellence programs; we interviewed selectors of excellence programs and asked them to complete an online questionnaire with vignettes; we performed an extensive document analysis; and we used questionnaires and interviews with employers, policy makers, programme directors, excellence programme coordinators, teachers and students.

Key findings

With regard to selection of candidates for excellence programmes, we found strong evidence that higher grades and more extracurricular experiences such as experience abroad, study-related side job and volunteering contribute positively to the chance of being selected for excellence programmes. In addition, motivation, thinking, perseverance, social involvement and creativity play an important role in selecting students. Results also show that working more hours in a paid job (next to studying in the regular programme and the excellence programme) reduces the odds of successfully completing the excellence programme. For the individual added value of participation in excellence programmes, we found that students who participated in excellence programs have developed both cognitively and non-cognitively, but that they are not substantially different from those who did not participate in excellence programmes: these students have experienced comparable growth. The results underline that the students who participated in excellence programmes already scored better on most cognitive and non-cognitive outcome measures at the start of the programme than students who did not participate in excellence programs. This suggests that the main differences between the two groups stem from selection of students for excellence programmes. Excellence programmes matter for the employability of recent graduates: participation in these programmes is seen as a ‘plus’ by employers. However, employers see participation in excellence programmes mostly as an indicator of personal characteristics such as ambition, intelligence and perseverance, and less an indicator of professional skills. Finally, with regard to the impact on higher education institutions, excellence education can indeed function as a testing ground for education innovation. The testing ground offers conditions that encourage and allow educational innovations. Not having a stringent regular structure for excellence education is seen as one of the crucial aspects. Moreover, teachers are vital as they develop and test innovations. Reflecting on the diffusion process, we observe that this mainly happens through teachers that are involved in both types of education (excellence and regular). Policy instruments are rarely specifically designed to create diffusional effects.

> Read more about project Excellence in Higher Education

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