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Mind the gap: fostering the school-to-work transition among higher education graduates with disabilities

Marian de Groot, director of the Dutch handicap + studie expertcentre, pleads in her blog for national and regional agreements in which we step up cooperative efforts between institutions, authorities and employers to ensure that higher education graduates with disabilities no longer find themselves sidelined on the job market.

For six years now I have been director of the handicap + studie expert centre, and am as dedicated as ever to helping students with disabilities. Our mission is to enable these students to successfully pursue the education of their choice. As I see it, preparing them to transition to the job market is crucial. This is where I've focused much of my efforts over the past years, particularly because, as I've discovered, this is a tough nut to crack.

Employment figures reveal the average participation rate among people with occupational impairments is substantially lower (32%) than that of unimpaired workers (76%). Though it's higher among those with than those without a degree (45% compared to 29%), there's plenty of room for improvement here, too.

Data from the yearly national student survey (NSE) of students at Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences show that traineeships, jobs and job market training are a problem for students with disabilities. This finding is echoed by student counsellors, student advisers and other higher education actors.

Given this knowledge, I am struck by the lack of structural efforts to equip these young people to successfully make the transition from education to traineeships and jobs.

Whereas education institutions have a responsibility to provide degree and qualifications training, their formal support ends when certificates are handed out, leaving recent graduates on their own when they may still need support. Efforts at Dutch higher education institutions aimed at smoothing this labour market transition remain limited and ad hoc.

Nor do institutions monitor how students with disabilities fare after leaving or dropping out of education; instead, they simply fade off the radar. And although the sector has a general alumni monitor, this pays no specific attention to those with occupational impairments. The conclusion, therefore, is that education institutions are often failing to fulfil their responsibilities towards students with disabilities.

These students are getting equally short shrift from municipal governments. In a recent report (titled Als je ze loslaat raak je ze kwijt [If you let them go, you will lose them]), the Dutch Social Affairs and Employment Inspectorate notes that municipal authorities are neglecting certain groups of young graduates who find themselves sidelined on the job market. One is graduates with disabilities.

Support for this group also falls short. Since the implementation of the Dutch Participation Act in 2015, it has been up to municipalities to ensure that everyone who can work does so, receiving assistance if necessary, for which municipalities receive national funding. However, virtually all municipal schemes prioritise youth in special education, vocational education and basic upper secondary vocational education (MBO 1), neither supporting nor monitoring higher education graduates with disabilities. What is more, they have no specific expertise or support services that would even enable them to do so.

Adding insult to injury, students in higher education can no longer apply for assistance under the Invalidity Insurance (Young Disabled Persons) Act. After graduating, most no longer qualify for the scheme because their credentials – at least in theory – tend to elevate them above minimum wage level. Consequently, they are not included in the government target group register or employment agreements concluded with employers. Employers wishing to hire workers with occupational impairments thus have no recourse to special schemes like wage cost subsidies, no-risk policies or job coaches. Young graduates who can't find a job end up falling between the cracks: they are not impaired enough to qualify for invalidity insurance, but too impaired to compete on an equal footing with healthy jobseekers. 

To be eligible for social services, people with occupational impairments must report their disabilities. But this is a double-edged sword, because reporting a disability also reduces your chances of landing a traineeship or job. A large share of employers (49%) state they have no suitable jobs for workers with impairments. Many are biased against disabled workers, assuming they need extra supervision, are sickly, difficult, expensive and so on. Largely, this is down to ignorance about this target group and a lack of support resources, leaving employers wary to hire young people with disabilities.

This is a problem with no owner. The education sector's responsibility appears to end at the campus gate, while that of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment and municipal governments only begins with benefit applicants too incapacitated to work. Meanwhile, instead of getting incentives, employers are lectured on their moral duties. Nor are there any statutory provisions or requirements on guidance or labour market preparation for graduates.

Yet, the societal costs of addressing this problem and devising and deploying interventions and additional efforts would be outweighed by the benefits to society if these young people could work, pay taxes and no longer needed to draw allowances. Also, job market participation would foster a sense of inclusion and have health payoffs.

The handicap + studie expert centre concludes that targeted guidance is needed to enable young people with disabilities to transition from education to work. In particular, during this crucial transitional phase they need assistance to obtain traineeships, graduate, find and apply for jobs, and enter and hold down employment. Providing this assistance first requires recognising the problem and making clear agreements between national ministries, municipal authorities and education institutions about who is responsible for what.

Therefore, I would like to call for national and regional agreements in which we step up cooperative efforts between institutions, authorities and employers to ensure that higher education graduates with disabilities no longer find themselves sidelined on the job market.


Marian de Groot is director of the Dutch handicap + studie expert centre

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