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Let every student experience the benefits of Liberal Arts and Sciences

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By Joris van Schie

More and more University Colleges are being established in the Netherlands. The recent plans for a University College in Leeuwarden show that this trend is far from over. What is it that moves Dutch universities to start a University College?

UCs function as the flagship faculties of their respective universities. It is a great opportunity for universities to brand themselves as international, excellent, modern et cetera. This is also the reason why universities spare no effort to promote the fact that they have a University College. Of course, there is more to it than just PR and branding, it indicates that Universities are actually adapting to, what some argue, the future of undergraduate education. By starting a University College, they acknowledge that in order to understand and solve the multifaceted problems of tomorrow, a multidisciplinary approach is necessary. With the attractive force UCs have for international students, universities can boost their internationalization ratings. In that sense, one could argue: the more University Colleges the better!

However, instead of just starting prestigious University Colleges, universities should also try to integrate the principles of UC education into their own programmes. In the end, universities have the task to provide every student with the best education possible, not just the small group of students that passed the admissions test. Funds should be equally allocated per student, not disproportionately to UC students.

Therefore, universities should give Liberal Arts and Sciences[1] education a more prominent role in the current bachelors. Merging bachelors and creating cross-curricular programmes is a good way to start. Adding more space within existing programmes for minors (instead of 15 ECTS extend it to 30 or 45 ECTS) helps too. A unique example of the latter is the University of Amsterdam’s PPLE program, a combination of Politics, Psychology, Law and Economics. Although it’s not true Liberal Arts and Sciences, it is a step in the right direction.

Yet, changing the undergraduate structure is not everything. The power of University Colleges, and therefore their quality of education, is also dependent on other factors such as the facilities, small classes and personal attention. This is very different from the ‘educational factories’ that some universities have become today, where personal attention and group discussions have been replaced by anonymity and mass lectures. Thus, to give everyone access to an excellent level of education, every aspect should be considered.

In short, to improve the overall quality of Dutch higher education, University Colleges should act as a source of inspiration for other undergraduate programs. This means that universities should pick out the things that work well at UCs and implement them in their general organisation. In the end, we should give everyone, not a few, the opportunity to experience the benefits of Liberal Arts and Sciences education.

[1] Definition of Liberal Arts and Sciences by the University College Deans Network: “The educational philosophy of liberal education – that stresses intellectual growth through both broad and deep learning – is at the basis of the teaching & learning approach and curriculum of the University Colleges. But modern liberal education in the Dutch University Colleges goes beyond the traditional liberal arts approach of ‘liberating’ the individual through intellectual engagement. By combining the disciplinary depth and interdisciplinary learning with research and communication skills, students develop their creativity, entrepreneurialism, skills in working together, international and intercultural understanding abilities and societal engagement.” (source)