Student financing agency ignored warnings about discrimination in fraud investigations

The Education Executive Agency (DUO), in charge of student financing in the Netherlands, received at least three warnings or reports about potentially discriminatory criteria in its investigations into fraud with study grants. At least two lawyers and one student have reported bias and possible discrimination to DUO and in court, Trouw reports.

Research by NOS, Investico, and the Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau recently showed that ethnically diverse students are wildly overrepresented in DUO’s fraud investigations. Almost all – 97 percent – of a large group of students who objected to DUO’s conclusions that they were committing fraud had a non-Dutch background. In response, DUO told NOS that it was unaware of this and had never researched it because it received no complaints.

But according to Trouw, that is not the case.

In September 2020, lawyer Rudolf van der Ham warned DUO that it might be using “discriminatory criteria” after his client accidentally received an email from DUO that also showed the names of other accused students. All but a few of the 29 students on the list had a non-Dutch surname. DUO brushed the warning aside, saying it had “objective (behavioral) characteristics” underlying the suspicions. In the court case that followed, Van der Ham also explicitly noted that DUO may be using “ethnic characteristics.” He won the court case, but neither DUO nor the court addressed his suspicions.

Lawyer Diane Piersz experienced a similar attitude when she warned DUO of “bias” in its fraud fight in 2021 and 2022. She was representing two sisters fighting DUO’s accusations of fraud. She also represented several victims in the benefits scandal and compared DUO’s method to that of the Tax Authority. Here too, both the court and DUO failed to address her suspicions.

And in 2021, a student with a Turkish background, who asked Trouw not to publish his name, filed a complaint with DUO about how its enforcers treated his family. The inspectors told his aunt, whom he was living with: “We often see fraud committed by people of your origin. Tell me honestly that he doesn’t live here.” DUO told the student that it couldn’t handle the complaint “because the home visit was more than five years in the past, and you already initiated an objection and appeal procedure.”

DUO told Trouw that it did not consider the lawyers’ warnings as official complaints. The government agency said it was “deeply sorry” for how it handled the Turkish student’s complaint. “We contacted the person involved and apologized.”

DUO launched an internal investigation into its fraud-detecting methods. The Dutch Data Protection Authority is investigating the algorithm DUO used, and Demissionary Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf also announced an external and independent investigation.

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