Many of my friends have told me they long for the kind of laid-back and carefree lifestyle in European countries — in particular, the Netherlands, which is famous for its high level of social liberty and openness.
As a matter of fact, like anywhere else, life in the Netherlands isn’t perfect, but there is still quite a lot we can learn from its higher education and social system.
There are two kinds of higher education programs in the Netherlands: higher vocational education and formal university education.
Unlike Hong Kong students, Dutch students enjoy a lot of freedom in choosing their subjects of study even in secondary school.
And the university admission mechanism is unique: any student who has fulfilled 80 percent of the academic requirements is automatically admitted to his or her first-choice institution, while the rest will be determined by lot, so that students who didn’t get good grades in open exams can still have a second chance.
The Netherlands is also famous for its legalization of marijuana.
In fact the Dutch authorities only adopted a different approach to marijuana after their attempt to ban it failed totally in the 1970s.
Today, drugs are divided into two categories in the Netherlands: hard drugs and soft drugs.
While hard drugs such as heroin and methamphetamine are completely banned, soft drugs like marijuana are allowed to be sold in limited amounts for recreational use in specified places, such as some coffee bars.
Marijuana sales generate a handsome amount of tax and tourism revenues every year.
Dutch citizens are entitled to a wide variety of social welfare benefits that cover housing, healthcare, education, childcare and so on.
The Dutch also enjoy universal retirement benefits, and that is why it is often said that the government takes care of its people “from cradle to grave”.
However, the happy-go-lucky lives of many Dutch people have suddenly come to an end as a result of the European debt crisis.
The Netherlands has recorded a contraction in gross domestic product for several years in a row, its unemployment rate has hit 8 percent, and the government has had to cut back on welfare spending.
Earlier, the Dutch king publicly declared that the era of the welfare state for the Netherlands is over.
As a result, discontent is mounting in Dutch society, giving rise to right-wing extremists who openly call on the government to stop accepting refugees and immigrants.
A recent poll showed that one-third of the Dutch agree that their government should stop accepting foreign refugees immediately.
It appears that in the age of globalization and financial uncertainty, even the most liberal and pluralistic country in Europe is facing difficult challenges and having to make tough decisions.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 18.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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