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Lottery costs top medical student university place

Lotteries are the all rage these days. But the tombola used by the Netherlands to allocate university places has caused public outrage, following the system's recent rejection of one of the country's most talented students.

Meike Vernooy scored a 9.6 average (out of 10) in her university entrance exams and had in principle been accepted to study medicine at Rotterdam's prestigious Erasmus University.

Unfortunately for the brilliant 17-year-old scholar, demand for medical school places outstripped supply, with 6,072 students applying for 1,750 places. The country's educational lottery system was used to sort out the problem and Vernooy failed to draw a winning lot. Erasmus University tried to force her admission through but was reprimanded by the government, which funds the universities.

The lottery system, said to be unique to the Netherlands, was introduced 20 years ago as a "fair way" of allocating places for oversubscribed courses. No preference is shown to students with above-average results and no interviews are held to assess suitability. Under Dutch law, admission to university is automatic provided the student has passed the entrance exams and there are sufficient places.

"The system is part of the Dutch egalitarian tradition. The Dutch do not like to set someone above or below another. But the lottery is randomly denying highly qualified and motivated students access to a chosen field. It's subversive and ultimately unfair," said one Dutch parent, who did not want to be named.

She said it had taken her daughter four years to gain a winning ticket for medical school and in the meantime she had studied to become a nurse, taking up a place that could have gone to someone who wanted to become a nurse.

Nevertheless, the public outrage and Erasmus's stand have galvanised the education ministry to review the process. A commission will report on possible alternatives to the lottery next March, including giving universities a greater say and taking a student's work experience into account.

But education minister Jo Ritzen warned against over-optimism. "There is no (selection) system that does not lead to people being disappointed. Three-out-of-four applicants for medical school are not going to get in whichever way you do it," he said.

However, some MPs want the system abolished now. "It's a mystery why we have got to wait until next March. There are plenty of other selection methods that have been applied successfully in the Netherlands and abroad for years. We need action now to eradicate the injustice of a student's future depending on something so arbitrary as a lottery ticket," said Monique de Vries, an MP for the centre-right VVD party.

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