Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to evaluate whether the new (comprehensive) concept of competence and the competence-based education approach are being used in, and perceived as being fruitful for, academic education. Design/methodology/approach – In this explorative and qualitative study individual interviews with representatives of study programs from eight universities in the Netherlands were held, and a participative case-study in one university was conducted, in which practices and perceptions from various stakeholder groups were triangulated. Findings – The opinions of the respondents on the usefulness of the competence-based education approach were quite positive. There is wide agreement on the necessity to align university curricula to the needs of society and of the labour market. University education can make effective use of the competence concept. Universities differ as to the extent to which they employ a competence-based education approach. Many hurdles exist for actually implementing this in university curricula. Research limitations/implications – Interpretations largely depend on the perceptions of the respondents in the study. For most university programs only one representative was included as respondent in the study. Practical implications – With some exceptions, the competence-based education approach is currently not much used in academic education. Possibilities and limitations of competence-based academic education should be identified in further case studies and strategies for actually implementing it should be developed. Further research should show differential relationships between the level of integration of the competence concept in higher education and the societal effects of the respective programs. Originality/value – The competence concept has been underexposed in university education practices and in research.