[Column] The cherry on the cake

Columnist Birgit van Driel sees no benefit in getting rid of cum laude and argues for a broad shift in culture where you do not always need to be the very best.

Birgit van Driel: When a technical degree programme suits you, it is not difficult. (Foto: Sam Rentmeester)

In September 2022, the Free University of Amsterdam’s medical degree programme got rid of cum laude. And as fellow columnist Casper Albers predicted (in Dutch), when one sheep crosses the dam … Another three medical degree programmes are now also thinking about dropping cum laude in the hope of easing the pressure on students to perform and reducing burnouts. Discussions about whether to drop the cum laude abound in the national media so I am happy to follow suit. 

I graduated cum laude and for me that was a surprise. It was the cherry on the cake, a crown to top off my studies. I slowly but steadily improved my grades at every educational level. At first, I doubted whether science subjects were for me, later in secondary school and my bachelor’s, my average grade was a low seven. In my Swiss master’s it rose to 4.8 (out of five). As the highest grades were dished out there with greater ease than in the Netherlands (a 10 there is not reserved for the teacher), this did feel like any exceptional performance on my part. Finally, I received a cum laude designation for my doctoral thesis. The odd thing is that I did not get more ambitious over time nor did I work any harder either. Things just started to fall into place. If I experienced any stress, it was because I did not want to have to repeat a particular exam again (FTP – you know who you are – read more at the bottom), or because I did not feel like all the extra work that a paper rejection brings.

I would broaden the criteria for cum laude

Cum laude is a recognition of exceptional work so by definition it is not for everyone. I never considered being an exceptional student, so it was never a stress factor for me. I also did not have the ambition to be exceptional in my academic performance. To me, the issue is not the cum laude title itself, but it is the constant need to be the best and the assumption that we can objectively determine ‘the best’. Getting rid of the title will not reduce the pressure to perform. Students will find another indicator for ‘being the best’. This is why a broad shift in culture (that should start well before university) in which we realise that not everyone has to be the best, would make much more sense and is more necessary for the wellbeing of students than dropping cum laude. Graduating should be the objective and a cum laude distinction is just the, much appreciated, cherry on top.

If we drop cum laude, we may as well drop all academic awards and even the lintjesregen (royal decorations awarded to citizens who have performed exceptional services to the country and/or citizens) as I believe that cum laude should be seen as a wonderful award, a recognition for exceptional work, or for above average efforts. This is how I believe the cum laude title functions for doctoral dissertations. It could be that the medicine degree programme is different and that cum laude is only based on grades. If so, instead of getting rid of cum laude, the basis for it should be broadened and include other criteria. Grades may be the best indicator to check if someone has understood the subject, but it is definitely not the best indicator to determine whether someone will be an exceptional doctor.

In my experience, cum laude celebrates students who believe they are average and are satisfied being so if they stand out. And we should not want to get rid of this. 

FTP stands for physical transport phenomena (fysische transport verschijnselen) , at the time a make or break subject in the Molecular Science & Technology bachelor.

Birgit van Driel started working as a Policy Officer at Strategic Development in 2021. She returned to TU Delft where she started her studies back in 2006. She’s been affiliated to the Faculties of IDE (first year), AS (bachelor’s) and 3mE (PhD). After earning her PhD, she worked as a Strategy Consultant at Kearney and a Program Officer at NWO-AES. 

Columnist Birgit van Driel

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