How should the ‘Parliamentary Investigation Committee’ research discrimination in the Netherlands?

10 minutes to read
Kutlay Yağmur

The Dutch Senate (First Chamber of the Parliament) recently decided to investigate the relationship between anti-discrimination legislation and its effects in practice. The fact that the Dutch Senate has taken on this investigation highlights the societal relevance of the matter. The Senate is focusing on four major domains, the labour market, education, social security, and the police, for a thorough understanding of the dynamics of discrimination.

The focus on education is significant because any form of discrimination influences future education and employment prospects for individuals from different backgrounds. The committee has suggested that research should focus on conscious and unconscious discrimination in practice. As reported in the parliamentary report, discrimination makes it more difficult, for example, for pupils with a migration background to find an internship. It is also important to investigate the availability of equal opportunities for children coming from all kinds of backgrounds and children with physical or mental disabilities. The committee also reported that the education system, through its structures and selection mechanisms, contributes to the segregation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In order to get feedback on their research design, the parliamentary investigation committee invited a number of experts in the field of education to present their opinions. The author of this article was one of the experts invited by the committee. On June the 15th, 2021, together with two other scholars, Kutlay Yagmur presented his critical remarks on the commitee's research plans. The Senate session on discrimination in education can be watched below.


In the following section, Yagmur's speech is followed by a critical evaluation of the Senate session in line with the relevant questions posed by committee members.

Kutlay Yagmur's speech on discrimination in education:

Thank you for your invitation to talk at this parliamentary investigation. The fact that this committee is dealing with the issue of ‘discrimination’ is sufficient evidence that the Dutch institutions and state organizations are concerned with the societal developments.

I examined your research design and saw that you present a solid plan. Whether you call it a chain model or a circular model, what matters is what this investigation wants to achieve. In order to gain insight into the process, I watched your meeting on May the 25th on YouTube and I already realized that this is a very complex process involving multiple actors. I am a sociolinguist working on issues of language policy, educational linguistics and multilingualism, among others. Over the years, I am involved in multiple research projects in which education and school achievement were important topics.

Based on my research in the international and the local Dutch context, I will present a perspective to encourage further thinking and reflection. I hope to be critical but at the same time sufficiently constructive. The first question I would like to deal with is whether there is a gap between the law on paper and the law in practice. To respond, I would like to mention research findings from two international projects. 

The first one is Migrant Integration Policy Index (known as MIPEX). The European Union supports this research into different areas of migrant integration in multiple countries, in which European and other countries are compared regarding their integration policies. According to this research, the Netherlands has a rather high score regarding anti-discrimination legislation. In MIPEX it is mentioned that everyone in the Netherlands is protected against ethnic, racial, religious and nationality discrimination in all areas of life except social protection, where gaps emerge in the Dutch law. Additionally, the mechanisms in place to enforce the law are some of the strongest among developed democracies.

In the same comparative research, we see results in education. However, in education the Netherlands does not seem to be doing well enough. Immigrant pupils can access compulsory and non-compulsory education in the Netherlands, regardless of legal status. Schools still receive basic funding and training to target immigrant pupils' specific learning needs, though standards vary across schools and cities. These results tell us that in spite of strong anti-discrimination legislation, there are still undesired practices in education, labour market, and so on. 

The other international project that I coordinated myself together with Professor Guus Extra is the Language Rich Europe project (Extra & Yagmur, 2012). We carried out this research in 18 European countries. We first examined all the legislation coming from European Commission and the European Parliament on multilingualism. The EU and its institutions fully support diversity and multilingualism in member states. Just like your current investigation, our research aimed at finding out the gap between policy and practice. To our astonishment, there is a much wider gap between policy and practice. Many member states in the EU do not follow European rules and legislation.

Based on the research evidence, we can easily claim that the discrepancy seen between policy and practice, as well as legislation and implementation, seem to be large. How to ensure accurate implementation is a big challenge, but we have greater challenges in the Netherlands.

In this parliamentary investigation, your main research question is: What are the causes and possible solutions to the gap between the law on paper and the law in practice when it comes to discrimination?

I believe it is more important to understand the causes of discrimination than documenting the forms of discrimination.

As I reported from MIPEX research findings, Dutch laws and regulations on anti-discrimination are among the good ones in Europe. The problem is in the practice. In this respect, I believe it is more important to understand the causes of discrimination than document the forms of discrimination. The committee might conduct the most comprehensive research, but the question remains: Will discrimination disappear from society? Besides, you might have the best legislation but as long as there is segregation and polarisation based on differences in heritage of Dutch citizens, it would not be possible to get rid of discrimination.

In the May 25 meeting, one of the committee members asked ‘what is discrimination?’ Simply said, discrimination is the unfair or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people, especially based on their skin colour, age, sex, ethnicity, heritage or disability. In general, we make the mistake that discrimination is mostly directed at certain population groups. The object and subject of discrimination cannot be brought down to ethnicity or heritage alone. 

The forms of discrimination against people with handicaps is even more hurtful than other forms of discrimination. This also has to receive large attention in your research design. Include, for instance, deaf or hard of hearing people in your research to see the extent of discrimination they face. People with handicaps encounter more systemic discrimination than any other population group in the Netherlands. They are being treated as a burden on society! The most common form of discrimination that people talk about in education is ethnic, linguistic, or heritage-based discrimination. 

As you indicated in the beginning of your research description, it is normal to talk about different population groups in a diverse society. However, if how we frame these population groups leads to discrimination or normalizes differential treatment, then we need to pay attention to the construction of interethnic boundaries. 

Most young Dutch people whose ancestors come from different migration backgrounds do not identify themselves as 'ethnic others' but simply as Dutch nationals. They want to be included instead of excluded. 

Public institutions, schools, researchers, the media and politics contribute to the normalization of differential treatment of various population groups in society. Let me give concrete examples so that we can critically reflect on and analyse my remarks. We have the Social and Cultural Planning bureau that produces insightful reports on different societal questions. Over the years, I have examined the reports of the SCP on school achievement differences between different population groups. In the past, they talked about ‘westerse en niet westerse-allochtonen’ but these days they use terms like Turkish-Dutch or Moroccan-Dutch people. 

Semantically, the core issue here is the identification of these young people with the heritage of their parents or grandparents. In most documents, researchers and experts refer to these Dutch citizens with their ethnic, linguistic or religious heritage. In the academic literature, we refer to this as otherization. Based on my research, I know that most of these young Dutch people, whose ancestors come from different migration backgrounds, do not identify themselves as 'Ethnic others' but simply as Dutch nationals. They want to be included instead of excluded. 

If impactful public institutions like SCP, CBS, the media, and politics continue to identify these young Dutch people with their heritage, this normalizes their otherization. If state institutions, researchers and media refer to students from different backgrounds with their ethnic heritage, they normalize the construction of interethnic boundaries. Without realizing, we construct mental boundaries leading to ethnic, linguistic or religious segregation, which is the cause of most discrimination in society. 

Inclusion is the best form of integration strategy. By constantly referring to differences in terms of heritage, we might be excluding certain population groups. Referring to a young woman or man as immigrant, while this person is the third-generation descendant of a migrant family, does not facilitate inclusion but exclusion. You tell these people, ‘you are different’ and your difference might be the cause of your differential treatment.

All kinds of educational policies are implemented in schools by teachers. They are important agents of policy implementation. School teachers are human beings and they carry similar societal mental-images in their minds. If schools, public institutions, the statistics bureau, the media and politics refer to a section of their students as “Turkish or Moroccan Dutch”, these differences are normalized in their mind. In referring to the parents, they do not mind talking about Turkish or Moroccan parents. This mental boundary construction has far-reaching implications in education.

Peter Stevens, a researcher from Ghent University, investigated race/ethnicity and educational inequality in the Netherlands (Stevens et al. 2011). The research was published in 2011, but in terms of the current practice, nothing much has changed . Stevens and his colleagues criticize the research culture in the Netherlands by calling it political arithmetic, in which school achievement differences between various population groups are compared based on quantitative procedures. 

Based on quantitative analyses of representative samples of pupils and schools in the Netherlands, reports published by SCP conclude that (non-Western) ethnic minority pupils start and finish primary education with considerable arrears in mathematics and (Dutch) language compared to the native Dutch population. 

The researchers use ethnicity or heritage as the most important variable in documenting the differences between population groups. However, when we closely analyse the data by controlling social capital factors such as educational level and income level of parents, we clearly see that it is not ethnicity but the socioeconomic status (SES) of parents that explains the achievement differences among pupils. By focusing on false categories such as ethnicity and immigration heritage, inaccurate research outcomes are produced. By comparing Cito results of pupils based on ethnic categorizations as Turkish, Moroccan, Surinamese, Antillean, as well as Low-SES Dutch and High-SES Dutch, researchers simply maintain ethnic categories and contribute to stigmatization of certain population groups. 

By maintaining ethnic categorization in research and education, we normalize ethnic differentiation and normalize the discourse used to identify such groups.

If we conduct analyses by controlling SES of the parental background, we see no significant differences between population groups. But we do see differences between children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and children who come from high social capital backgrounds.

By maintaining ethnic categorization in research and education, we normalize ethnic differentiation and normalize the discourse used to identify such groups. People complain about ethnic profiling in the police force and the taxation office, but the same kind of ethnic profiling is going on in the education sector. The sad thing is researchers in academia contribute to ethnic profiling by using inaccurate categories as research variables.

The Dutch government and public institutions use the term autochthon to describe native Dutch individuals, to indicate indigenous, native and authentic, and allochtoon (allochthonous) to identify those who are non-native, born elsewhere, and basically outsiders. Being an in-group or outgroup member makes a large difference. If we constantly refer to certain people as ‘less legitimate’ members of the society, it is inevitable that ethnic stratification emerges and certain groups are discriminated against.

There are other issues such as the language ban in the schoolyard, but it is a long discussion and we have no time for it. By not allowing young children to speak in a language other than Dutch, we might be giving the wrong message that their linguistic and cultural heritage is not admissible on school grounds. Having the best anti-discrimination legislation in the Netherlands might not stop discrimination. We need to make fundamental changes the field of education, media, and politics. 

Suggestions to the committee

Suggestion to the committee: It is important that the research design of the Committee pay attention to the dynamics of interethnic boundary construction and its possible consequences in society.

Suggestion to the researchers: It is highly advisable that researchers start using different approaches in research in the first place. Instead of ethnic or heritage categories, they need to use social categories, which are more meaningful and lead to outcomes that are more accurate.

Suggestion to the Ministry of Education: Teacher Training Programs need to be revised in line with the needs of super diversity. It is crucial that young teachers from all backgrounds are supported in becoming teachers.

Summary of question & response session

Various committee members posed questions for clarification and further reflection. In my responses, I further highlighted the damaging role of ‘heritage tracing’ in research, education, media, and politics. If a third-generation descendant of a migrant family was born in Tilburg, he or she should be registered in the population register with Tilburg as their birthplace.

However, municipal population registers use the birthplace of the parents (or even grandparents) as heritage indicators. This maintains segregation based on ethnicity and heritage. As long as this practice is not changed, ethnic segregation and discrimination will continue. If the aim is inclusion, practices based on ethnic, linguistic, and religious segregation should be stopped.

In Australia or Canada, when a person is born, this person is registered as Australian or Canadian irrespective of their parents' heritage. This is an inclusive policy. Besides, based on research evidence, we know that many people descended from migrant groups are happy to identify themselves as Australian or Canadian. In the European context, ius solis instead of ius sanguinis must be the criteria for more inclusive approaches. In short, as long as the causes of discrimination remain intact, discrimination will never be eliminated. Nevertheless, the Dutch Senate has the intention to deal with discrimination and hopefully with its causes as well. This gives hope for the future.