I’d like to give you an account of a recent development within Dutch higher education, a development that started in the late 1990s. It is the type of innovation that is drastically resetting the quality standards for teaching and learning in universities.

I am talking about the so-called “university colleges”, international and academic undergraduate institutions that thoroughly prepare motivated students for the better professional graduate programmes in the world.

University colleges constitute, in fact, a double innovation: not only do they represent a major innovation in the structure of Dutch higher education, they also educate their students to become creative and innovative citizens for the 21st century.

A university college is a mix of three important elements of undergraduate education: programme, scale and pedagogy. Together, these three elements form the backbone of the European heritage in education, though we sometimes seem to forget about them.

As far as the programme is concerned, the main reference is to the original, Aristotelian liberal arts and sciences format that still forms the undergraduate programme of the better American universities and colleges.

Critical thinking, communication and choice

With respect to scale and size, a university college looks like the 40 colleges of Oxford University and the 30 colleges of Cambridge University. The name “university college” was taken after University College, the first college founded in 1249 at Oxford University.

And as far as pedagogy is concerned, university colleges refer to the Humboldtian Bildung tradition in which two elements stand out: the connection of teaching and research and the importance of a student’s free choice.

Each element has its own main problems that had to be solved in order for Dutch university colleges to be accepted by the established universities as an interesting and valuable form of undergraduate education. This innovation has generated a spin-off in the Netherlands, as well as abroad.

Liberal arts education is a system of undergraduate higher education that nurtures students’ ambition to learn and to become a responsible and knowledgeable citizen. In that sense, it has a cognitive as well as a moral ambition. It is a system that teaches students how to acquire new and valid knowledge; to help them think critically; to make them adequately report and communicate about their results in speaking and writing; and also to prepare them to become responsible and independently thinking citizens.

It achieves this by offering a broad academic curriculum that covers all basic academic disciplines (the so-called artes liberales). From all the courses that are on offer, students are asked to build their own individual study path, observing, of course, a set of choice rules that guarantee both breadth and depth.

The term artes liberales has always included the sciences as well, but to avoid the often heard, mainly European, misunderstanding that links the term exclusively to the humanities, we usually speak about “liberal arts and sciences,” a combination that is – admittedly – a pleonasm.

The benefits of the liberal arts and sciences

Liberal arts education is a truly academic, not vocational, type of education. In that sense, it is different from contemporary European and Asian models of higher education in which students are often, right from the start, led into professional studies.

Next to its academic orientation, which is in itself of great value, the liberal arts model has two additional advantages. On the one hand it provides students with the academic and multidisciplinary base for a top-notch professional programme in the graduate school – for example, law school, medical school, government school, business school, engineering school, as well as the graduate school of liberal arts and sciences.

At the same time, it frees students from having to make a premature and ill-considered choice at the young age of 17 or 18. Thanks to the liberal arts setting, students may enter college or university without being too specific or too sure about the direction in which they would like to major. The liberal arts curriculum gives them the opportunity to gradually zoom in on the major or concentration for which they have an affinity.

Size or scale forms the second cornerstone of university colleges. From the Oxbridge colleges, we borrowed a truly collegiate system, in which university colleges should not be bigger than 600 or so students. That size makes it possible for students to get to know each other very rapidly and to learn from the variety of their peers’ perspectives. The educational power of having students with a variety of interests (and majors) and also with a variety of cultural backgrounds – most colleges have students from 50 to 60 different nationalities – is impressive.

Among the students of such a small college, positive feelings of pride, belonging and responsibility can easily be established. Feelings of pride, belonging and responsibility won’t come into being unless students and faculty can look each other in the eye.

We arranged for classes to have a maximum of 25 students. The intensity of the interaction in these small classrooms is much more productive than in mass lectures; students are asked to write papers on which feedback is given and which are discussed in class; they are asked to give presentations, to defend their findings and opinions publicly.

Everything is done to engage in more proactive forms of teaching and learning. All these activities count in a system of continuous assessment, so that students know exactly where they stand as they proceed.

The pedagogy is the third essential element of our university college concept. Some important aspects of its pedagogy were already included in what was mentioned about the programme and the size of the college. For example, in a liberal arts setting, students are made responsible for their own programme, their own study path (albeit within a set of constraints), which has the positive effect of making clear that they are treated as professionals themselves.

Limiting class size to a maximum of 25 certainly helps to make the teaching and learning process more interactive than in a traditional lecture setting. Students explicitly learn from one another, not only because they come from different cultural backgrounds and have different mindsets, but also because they may have different majors or different concentrations within their majors.

Another crucial pedagogical element is the focus on academic skills, such as how to think critically, how to properly collect data, how to properly come to conclusions, how to organise objections and how to present conclusions in writing or speaking.

The importance of undergraduate research

But there is one single element in the pedagogy of this “Dutch Mix” that deserves special mention: the undergraduate research focus. It is, in fact, a contemporary interpretation of Humboldt’s emphasis on the connection of teaching and research. In most universities, this teaching-research connection has gotten a very specific meaning, signalling that unless teachers are engaged in research projects, they won’t be any good in teaching either.

And, of course, that may be true, but the immediate consequence has often been that university teachers have shifted their focus from teaching to research, which is, in fact, a form of goal displacement similar to the shift bankers have made from clients to bonuses.

In our university colleges, the mantra of teaching and research was given a different twist, more in line with what Humboldt must have had in mind: students and teachers engage in so-called undergraduate research projects. These projects may have a more regional and/or practical focus, or they may be elements in a research line of a particular teacher or department, if not, as is often the case, very original, student-driven additions to such a research line.

Undergraduate research may help the student to acquire new knowledge and understand how research is properly done, but at the same time it serves the teacher in his or her own research and publication interest.

Overcoming resistance

Despite the positive impacts, introducing the Dutch Mix into higher education has involved many hurdles, and much resistance. The liberal arts setting was confronted with the almost paradigmatic character of the studierichting, the fixed programme; it was often accused of providing students with an “anything goes”-programme, which, particularly in times of economic crisis, was not expected to help students to get a decent job.

Some faculty seemed to be afraid of having to compete in a market setting in which students may pick courses and teachers for whom they have affinity. On top of that, spending so much time teaching would drastically lower the faculty member’s research output. Skepticism reigned as the Dutch Mix had only promises and not much evidence in the first couple of years.

But after four or five years, even the most skeptical faculty had to admit that graduates from university colleges were among the very best candidates not only for master and PhD programmes all over the world, but also for employers who needed academics who could think, write and present. Moreover, the enthusiasm of faculty members who taught at university colleges spread rapidly over the university as a whole, making it a privilege to be invited to teach there.

The college setting, that is, the small size, also met with objections, particularly related to cost. Of course, everyone would agree that small classes improve the quality of teaching and learning, but in line with traditional industrial logic, the lack of standardised teaching must raise costs, the skeptics thought.

Being stuck in the paradigm of fixed programmes, or studierichtingen, they never realised that having separate bachelor programmes may be more costly. And outside of the realm of costs and cost-efficiency, in a college setting with small classes, teachers can no longer hide behind prefabricated lectures or chapters of books that could have been read by the students themselves. They really need to be in full charge of the material, so that they may invite students to find out for themselves. In other words: teachers have to become teachers again.

Finally, of course, there was the complaint that the intensity of the teaching process would minimise the teacher’s chance to engage in serious research. It is true that full time teachers at university colleges spend 1,200 hours per academic year teaching and learning, and that workload does not leave much room for one’s own research (outside, of course, the undergraduate research projects).

But it is also true that, even in these circumstances, there are still four full months available for one’s own research projects, and that, if needed, a reduction of teaching obligations can be “bought” by acquiring grants, since part of the grant money can then be spent on qualified replacements. This suggests that teaching at a university college requires a special kind of teacher: teachers whose pride lies in the career of their students.

International interest

Introducing the university college concept into the Dutch system of higher education has had a variety of positive consequences. After the first college was founded in 1998, almost all universities in the country have built such a university college, mostly as a kind of honour’s college for students whose academic ambition and potential are above average.

The Dutch government decided in 2008 to grant a substantial amount of money to be used for the improvement of university education across the board. Although the intensity of the programme and the demands asked from students and teachers were far beyond familiar standards, graduation rates in these colleges skyrocketed up to 90-95 percent, and dropout rates fell to a bare minimum of five percent.

The vast majority of graduates of these university colleges are seen as excellent candidates for the better master and PhD programmes throughout the academic world and they consequently spread over the continents. Of the Dutch students in these colleges, over 50 percent go abroad and of the international students more than 50 percent stay in the Netherlands for their master programmes.

There has also been quite some interest from abroad. Universities from China have visited various of Dutch colleges, and there are efforts to establish a university college in Chongqing and one in Shanxi. The University of Freiburg in Germany also has a university college. At its opening, the university rector pondered transforming the entire institution into a collegiate institution.

The concept of university college is now rapidly taking root, and it does so for a very specific reason: the need for more creativity, out-of-the-box-thinking and entrepreneurship among generation 2.0.

It is my firm belief that unless universities go ‘collegiate’, they will have trouble surviving.

Hans P.M. Adriaansens is Emeritus Professor of Social Sciences at Utrecht University, Netherlands, and Dean Emeritus at Roosevelt Academy in Middelburg, an international honours college of Utrecht University. He was chairman of the Dutch Sociological and Anthropological Association, member of the Scientific Council for Government Policy, and chairman of the Council for Social Development. He founded University College Utrecht and Roosevelt Academy Middelburg, and is a co-founder of European Colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences. He publishes on sociological theory, the development of welfare states and the organisation of higher education.

This article was first published in THink: The HEAD Foundation Digest and reproduced with permission. The HEAD Foundation is a Singapore-based think tank that is focused on the research, policy influence, and effective implementation of education for development in Asia.

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