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Toptraject – Saxion University of Applied Sciences


Toptraject is an initiative from Saxion University's Department of Applied Sciences that aims to support students in pre-vocational education high schools who want to attend higher education. Therefore, Toptraject aims to lower the gap between vocational education and the University of Applied Sciences by providing ‘top classes’. Topclasses are short courses that are provided within the vocational education institutions, lasting from 5 to 10 hours and working on a specific theme. The goal of Toptraject is to develop study skills that are important in higher education so that students are better prepared for the educational level at Universities of Applied Sciences.

Narrative, origins and objectives of the initiative

What kind of project is this? Please give a short description (summary) of it.

Toptraject is an initiative that aims to facilitate access to the University of Applied Sciences and focuses on the whole chain of the Dutch educational system. Pre-vocational education high school students are offered the possibility to follow a successful route to the University of Applied Sciences - the VMBO - MBO - HBO route. Nine high schools, 1 vocational education institution (ROC Twente) and Saxion University of Applied Sciences are working together to realize this route. Attention is paid to the 'ability to stack' during school careers in order to find their way to higher education. The central focus of Toptraject is creating opportunities for individual students.

Please tell us why, in general, this project is considered a successful one?

The program is a unique and successful initiative in the Netherlands that has existed for approximately four years now. A partnership has been established between the various layers of the educational system of the Netherlands. Students who have the ambition to study at a higher education institution are supported in the Toptraject to ensure a successful transfer and improve study success in higher education. Next to the unique collaboration of multiple partners in the educational route, the project is based on a student-oriented approach and opportunities are created for individual students. The project takes into account the fact that every student is unique and has different needs in accomplishing a successful transfer to a higher education institution and study success.

And why would you consider it a grass-roots initiative?

Toptraject is developed by vocational education schools and is therefore considered a grass-roots initiative.

What challenges needed to be solved in this project?

  • Organizing Toptraject was and still is a complex process in which many challenges need to be solved and are still being solved. Many different factors work together on a challenging issues, that all have their own take on what good education actually is. This makes collaboration very challenging.
  • Professionals in pre-vocational education high schools often saw parents pressuring their children in taking specific routes from high school towards the University of Applied Sciences - but this route doesn't work for everyone. Many students have a more practical orientation and don’t have the ambition yet to study day in and day out. A result is that many drop out after a short time. Toptraject is developed as an alternative to this specific route and suits those students with a more practical orientation.
  • During the initial phase of Toptraject, little awareness existed of the importance of a good preparation for students who want to go to a University of Applied Aciences after finishing high school and vocational education. A lot of effort had been made to explain the intention of Toptraject. It is not developed to stimulate all students to choose for a study in higher education after they receive a diploma in vocational education. Toptraject wishes to support students with an ambition to continue their study route to a higher education institution and prepare them for the transition to an educational environment that includes different study skills and expectations.
  • Toptraject follows a student-oriented approach and a framework of creating opportunities for individual students. The project takes into account the fact that every student is unique and has different needs in accomplishing a successful transfer to a higher education institution and study success. It turned out to be a great challenge creating awareness for this student-oriented approach among teachers within participating schools.
  • Pre-vocational education high schools, as well as vocational and higher education institutions, are used to base their success on general numbers of student success rates instead of creating opportunities and paying attention to individual students. This transition is part of a long process of awareness and requires a completely different way of thinking and paying attention to individual students for teachers and other educational professionals. Recent attempts have been made to focus more on the professionalization of teachers and other educational professionals, thereby implementing a more student-oriented approach by organizing training sessions. All teachers taking part in Toptraject are invited to these sessions.
  • In the most ideal case all Toptraject activities are part of the existing curriculum so all students are able to receive support in their preparation for higher education. In recent years positive changes have occurred in a few participating schools. A number of schools have integrated the student-oriented education and Toptraject activities within the existing curriculum. Unfortunately most schools and teachers still find it difficult to fully integrate the student-oriented approach and organize the Toptraject activities outside the existing curriculum as after-school or evening activities or project weeks.
  • What's more, involvement, commitment and perseverance of students within Toptraject is a real challenge. Many of the students that took part in the first Toptraject activities with great enthusiasm, do not show up after a while. Teenagers often have different priorities and are not always willing to spend extra hours on after-school activities. Also not all students are equally aware of the importance of the program, because Toptraject is not a requirement to enroll at a University of Applied Sciences.
    • At the moment Toptraject is investing in a reorganization to improve this problem and relate more to the student population. Recently a new PR and communication manager has been hired. She has taken the VMBO-MBO-HBO route and is therefore more able to relate with the participating students and, from her own experience, knows the problems many students are facing.
    • Also, a number of new initiatives are implemented to stimulate students and commit them to Toptraject. When a student has successfully completed 80% of the program, he or she can participate in a study trip to England.
    • Next to this, well-known You Tube vloggers are involved in some of the activities by providing workshops. Recent attempts have been made to organize a set of courses of Saxion University of Applied Sciences during the last year of MBO to give students the opportunity to collect ECTS before going to higher education. This can contribute to a reduction in stress levels during the first year of study.

Is this initiative based on any particular theoretical framework? Which one?

In the initial phase of the project many activities were organized, but there was no theoretical framework or scientific research supporting the importance of these activities. Activities were carried out in response to common sense and experiences. The central focus was improving language and math skills, because it was thought that these factors were the most important. The main objectives of the program were not clearly formulated, because there was still little knowledge of which objectives are most important in order to make the project successful. Because of this, two lecturers were asked to carry out a literature study on important factors in terms of study success across the entire educational chain. The results from the literature study have been converted into a framework of Toptraject. This framework acts as a guideline that consists of the following three elements:

  1. Developing student-oriented education where the student, instead of the teaching method, is seen as the central focus.
    Within Toptraject, this student-oriented education focuses on students who are challenged and supported by teachers to facilitate a successful transition to a University of Applied Sciences.
  2. Creating a community between students, teachers and educational institutions.
    It is important for students to have a connection with their studoes and the educational institution, because this benefits their study results. The aim of Toptraject is to create this connection at student level, teacher level and management level. One way of achieving this is to make sure students are able to understand and are aware of the higher education environment at an early stage. For example, VMBO students receive peer coaching by HBO and MBO students and are able to attend lectures at a HBO institution taught by HBO teachers. In this way, multiple efforts are made to ensure all actors within the Toptraject are working together.


  1. Preparing pupils and students for the level and pace of studying at a higher education facility.
    Many former MBO students have found it difficult to keep up with the pace and level of a higher professional education because the teaching method and educational environment is very different. For a successful transition from MBO to HBO, students are already being prepared for the level and pace of studying at a University of Applied Sciences to prevent early drop-out and disappointing study results during the first year of study. To achieve this, HBO students with an MBO background act as role models and mentors. These HBO students guide VMBO and MBO students to improve study skills that are important within higher education.

(Appendix) Is your intervention standing on its own or is it a part of a bigger and more holistic approach?

Please describe the group(s) intended as beneficiaries of this initiative

Why has this group (have these groups) been chosen?

Toptraject is designed for high school students in pre-vocational education, as well as students in vocational education who have the ambition of continuing their study route to a University of Applied Sciences. Although the project does not focus on a specific target group, mostly first-generation students participate in Toptraject. Being a first generation student means that you are the first person in your family to attend a higher education institution.

For students that want to participate in Toptraject there are three admission requirements. The first requirement is that potential participants write a motivation letter in which they explain their motivation. The second requirement is that they have an average of at least 6.5 on their grade list. Because University of Applied Sciences is at a higher level, it is important that students are already able to perform well. The final requirement is that both the teacher and the parents feel the student is suitable for Toptraject.

Could you please tell us something about the relative size of the (of each) target group, within the school/university population, region and/or country?

In total 9 pre-vocational education high schools, 1 vocational educational institution (ROC Twente) and Saxion University of Applied Sciences work together in Toptraject. On average 40% of the pre-vocational education (level 4) students eventually decide to study at a higher education institution after receiving their required diplomas. Of this 40%, the aim is to place 80% of these students in the Toptraject program. This means 32% of all vocational education students who want to study at a higher education institution, take part in Toptraject.

Which social characteristics are taken into account and what is the geographical area covered?

The program was created because students in higher education with a vocational education background don't perform as well at a University of Applied Sciences as the students that come from more traditional routes. Inspection reports on study success show that the education level and income level of the parents are important predictors of study success. Compared to the national average, both factors are lower in Twente. Twente is part of the Eastern part of the Netherlands, which forms the geographical area of the target group. On average, 42% of the students with a high school pre-vocational education background finish their studies at a University of Applied Sciences. For those students that studied at ROC Twente before going to Saxion University of Applied Sciences, the average is only 36,4%. In many cases first generation students have parents with a lower income and educational level and benefit from extra support and guidance towards a University of Applied Sciences.

On which level is the project implemented?

Please describe the political and socio-economic factors that you believe have been important enablers for your initiative

Did the initiative have political support?

When Toptraject was set up, the government did not focus specifically on facilitating access to the non-traditional route to higher education (the VMBO-MBO-HBO route). Due to the high drop-our rates of students in higher education (who have a vocational education background), it became apparent that successful transition to higher education was important. In recent years, various initiatives and measures have been taken by the Ministry of Education to improve the transition to higher education. Financial support has been made available from the Ministry of Education to boost regional collaborations focusing on the transition to higher education, such as the Toptraject project. In total, €32 million has been made available for the period 2018-2021.

How did it fit with local, regional or national policies?

In 2016, the former Dutch Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, introduced a new policy to increase and promote equal opportunities in education. With this new policy the former minister aimed to connect relevant parties in the field, stimulate regional collaboration in the educational chain and facilitate exchange of knowledge. Various policy measures were taken that include a number of approaches to promote equal opportunities in education. Also, the focus is on improving the non-traditional route and transition towards higher education.

  1. Successful transitions in education: Stimulating better school advice, transfer programs in secondary education, the ability of a direct transfer from VMBO to HAVO and from MBO to higher education.
  2. Stimulating education: Investing in teachers and supporting MBO stacker programs.
  3. Strong networks: Strengthening parental involvement, supporting students in poverty, investing in cultural education at VMBO institutions and ‘giving back’ programs in secondary education and MBO.

Who are the stakeholders supporting the initiative?

  • Different high schools: Twents Carmel College (Losser), the Twents Carmel College (Oldenzaal), the Scholengroep Carmel Hengelo, the Erasmus (Almelo), the Noordik (Almelo), Pius X (Almelo) and Canisius (Almelo)
  • Vocational education institution - ROC in Twente
  • University of Applied Sciences - Saxion University of Applied Sciences
  • Supporting partners developing and supporting Toptraject content and research: Stichting Leerplanontwikkeling, lectureships 'Innovative and effective education' and 'Educational arrangements in a social context' of Saxion, Tech-your-Future (TYF), Talent for Tech (T4T) and the Study Success Center of Saxion University of Applied Sciences.

Are there particular demographic changes present that are influencing the project?

In recent years, the composition of the population in the Netherlands has changed and the number of people with a non-western migrant background has increased. Of those groups, many students are often the first person in their family to attend higher education. First generation students have a higher risk of dropping out during the first year of higher education. For example, parents and other members of the family are unable to inform, guide and prepare the student for higher education. These students are often not aware of their own possibilities in higher education and what to expect of the educational environment. First generation students can benefit from extra support and guidance during the preparatory phase, before attending higher education.

What is the institutional strategy and culture of the (educational) organization?

To what extent does the initiative have an influence on institutional policy (or potential influence) of the (educational) organization?

In the most ideal case Toptraject and the student-oriented approach is part of the institutional policy of the educational institutions involved. In recent years positive changes have occurred in a few participating high schools and Toptraject is currently still working on influencing institutional policy of the different schools involved. A number of schools have integrated the student-oriented education and Toptraject activities within the existing curriculum and policy. Unfortunately most schools and teachers still find it difficult to fully integrate the student-oriented approach in the curriculum and school policy. At Saxion University of Applied Sciences, Toptraject is an important part of the institutional policy.

(Appendix) Is there public support for your initiative and the issue it addresses?

(Appendix) What other factors do you think have been important for the success of this initiative?

Please describe the overall initiative design and the methods and tools used to reach the goals

Please describe the specific activities carried out.

Toptraject is set up as a linear design in which students can enter Toptraject in the third year of pre-vocational education (level 4). Now students can also enter Toptraject at a later stage of their educational route. From the moment the student enters Toptraject he or she receives guidance until they start their first year at Saxion University of Applied Sciences. During Toptraject students receive extra curricular assignments annually so that they meet the Toptraject profile (a set of goals for participants to meet at the end of the year).

The involved schools decide in which way they want to implement the Toptraject activities. A number of schools have integrated the Toptraject activities within the existing curriculum. Other schools organize the Toptraject activities outside the existing curriculum as after-school or evening activities or project weeks.

At the high schools, for example, students practice language and math assignments at a higher level. These assignments prepare students for the transition to higher education. Next to this, students develop skills in working independently, working together with other students, planning and being pro-active. In addition, students are introduced to all sorts of programs and the professional field in which the student aspires to work.

At the vocational education institution (ROC van Twente), students practice extra-curricular tasks at the level of University of Applied Sciences. Next to this, ‘top classes’ are offered, which is a short course from 5 to 10 hours on a specific theme. In the first year students must follow at least 8 of the 10 ‘top classes’ that are offered. In the second year students follow 5 ‘top classes’ next to their regular time schedule. During these ‘top classes’ study skills in higher education play an important role. In this way students are introduced and get used to higher education and the educational level. For each ‘top class’ in the first year students need to invest about 5 to 10 hours of extra study time on top of their regular curriculum. In addition to the ‘top classes’, students follow an intensive language and math program.

In September 2017, the second group of Toptraject students started at the vocational education institution (ROC of Twente). In the upcoming years the first Toptraject students will enter the first year of their desired study at Saxion University of Applied Sciences. Toptraject is still developing the program at Saxion.

What were the key roles (teacher, student, management team etc.) within the project?

The key roles of Toptraject are the Toptraject students. Next to the students, teachers and managers are involved and work together on the realization of a successful VMBO-MBO-HBO route. Meetings are organized and different boards are formed for all involved parties in order to create a successful collaboration during the entire educational chain.

- Board meetings: all directors of the participating schools meet twice a year.

- Advisory committee: two members of each participating VMBO, MBO and HBO institution.

- Program team: every educational layer delivers a project leader. The program team selects a program manager appointed by the joint parties.

- Teacher development teams: groups of teachers focus on different themes such as study career orientation, study skills, language skills and math skills. The teacher development teams include teachers from all education layers. The teams formulate Toptraject student profiles and develop tools that involved schools can use to organize and shape their Toptraject activities.

- Coordination and development meetings: Each educational layer organizes meetings with teachers and managers responsible for the development of Toptraject. The focus of these meetings is coordination and exchange of experiences and knowledge.

- Student platform: 10 vocational education students and students University of Applied Sciences are involved in Toptraject and participate in a student platform. The platform advises Toptraject about further development.

- PR and communication team: one member of each educational layer takes place in this team.

- ‘Learning from each other’ meetings: teachers from the different educational layers discuss best practices and relevant themes and issues.

What ideas, tools, theories, models, methodology (etc.) have been used to reach the goals?

As mentioned earlier results of a literature study on study success across the entire educational chain let to a framework that acts as a guideline for the organization and content of Toptraject. These guidelines then led to the following four ‘building blocks’ that focus on the development of individual students:

- Study career orientation and guidance
- Study skills
- Language skills
- Math skills

For each of these ‘building blocks’, a team of teachers wrote down what a student should be able to know at the end of the first year at the University of Applied Sciences. These competencies are transferred into a Toptraject profile: a profile that has been set as a goal for participants to meet at the end of the first year. To achieve this, goals have been formulated before the end of each year so that there is a clear set of objectives that participants must develop during that year. To achieve these objectives, many activities are part of a learning plan. This involves extra curricular activities in which parents are also involved. In a few years the aim is to integrate these activities within existing education.

What are the final revenues of the project?

Please describe if your project ensured its sustainability

If so, how did you ensure the short-term impact of the project?

Short-term impact mainly exists on student level:

- Study skills and study career orientation.
- Improved language and math skills.

And how did you ensure the long-term impact of the project?

Long-term impact can exist on institutional level:

- Improved study success rates of vocational education students that enter higher education.
- Successful collaboration of multiple partners within the educational chain improving the transition towards higher education.
- Toptraject as part of the curriculum and school policy in all participating schools.

Has your project been replicated elsewhere?

Other educational institutions in the region are already replicating Toptraject. The Graafschapcollege (MBO), ROC Aventus (MBO) and different high schools will start a new Toptraject. In these schools Toptraject is implemented in pre-vocational high schools, as well as vocational education institutions at the same time. This is possible because products and knowledge are already developed in Twente. In fact, collected knowledge, products and research are shared on the website and discussed during different meetings regarding study success in the educational chain. Tools are offered to other institutions that want to organize a similar program.

Please tell us about the resources used in this initiative

What was the budget for the initiative?

All partners participating in Toptraject contribute to costs for development, implementation, communication, promotion and research. Every year, the Administrative Consultation determines the budget. For development in the Talent4Tech project within Toptraject, financial support is offered by Tech-your-Future. For further development of Toptraject, financial support was offered by the Ministry of Education (Student labs, regional networks, VMBO - MBO, Comenius). The participation of Stichting Leerplanontwikkeling is based on its own funding.

How much did the initiative depend on volunteers?

How were the costs perceived by the public/the sector/other stakeholders?

To what extent did the initiative achieve its objectives?

Please describe the evidence to support the success of your initiative.

Because Toptraject started four years ago with students in pre-vocational education year 3, there are still no Toptraject students that are studying at Saxion University of Applied Sciences. In the academic year 2019/2020, the first Toptraject students will enter their first year of higher education. As a result, it can not yet be determined if the initiative achieved its objectives. In addition, Toptraject is seen as a long-term project. The expectation is that results will support the success of the project in approximately 10 years.

Did the intervention lead to any unintended (positive) outcomes?

What indicators (quantitative and qualitative) have you measured to demonstrate success?

Toptraject works with a PDCA1 in which an annual planning system is used. Monitoring is done through an annual consultation of students, parents, teachers and guidance on all aspects of Toptraject. The reports are accessible to all parties and are widely discussed. Next to this, every three years each educational institution involved is visited and reviewed by teachers from other schools on the design of Toptraject and the realization of different objectives. These visitations focus on learning instead of commenting on each other.

(Appendix) How did you evaluate/monitor this intervention?