By Frans Snackers
There are people that have known they want to become a doctor since they were in diapers. Others dream of becoming architects, bankers, or accountants. Well, maybe not that last one. For those people choosing a study is easy. They know what they want. However, a lot of prospective students find the choice a lot more challenging. These students might have a more varied field of interest, instead of having one thing they really like. For those students, a new type of university opened its doors in Groningen not long ago: University College Groningen.
Robert Heinlein once said that specialization is for insects, and I am inclined to agree. – Dr Ryan Wittingslow
The decision to open the college was made about 5 years ago, and the first students were welcomed two years after that. Based on the model of a liberal arts college, students are offered a selection of courses from a variety of disciplines. With the help of the staff, students create a program that is tailored to their liking.
“I’m a person with a lot of different interests,” says Lisa (20), a student from Greece. She says that the ability to pick courses from a mixture of disciplines is one of the reasons she came to UCG, “I think you need a lot of different aspects and I think this place is perfect for that.”
This feeling is shared by Dutch student Emma (18), who says it also helps to get to know yourself better. She took a course in a field that she thought was interesting, but it turned out that it was not her cup of tea. At a traditional university that would have likely meant dropping out, but at UCG it means adjusting your courses.
An International Character
The student body has a deliberate international character. At the moment, about 60% of all students come from outside of the Netherlands. “The aim is about 50/50, but we don’t take it into account during the admission process. We don’t maintain strict quotas,” says Rob van Ouwerkerk, managing director at UCG, “it is more a coincidence how it exactly ends up.”
Perhaps due to strict admission requirements like the need to have a good command of English, even Dutch-passport holding students tend to be more internationally inclined. “We notice that our Dutch students often come from international Baccalaureate programs and are used to taking courses in English,” van Ouwerkerk explains, “In that respect I think our Dutch students are also quite international.”
This international character is also reflected in the staff at the UCG. Apart from the expected Dutch employees, the nationalities range from Cypriot, to American, to South African. One of these expats, Dr Ryan Wittingslow, from Australia, ended up at UCG by accident. He landed a position as Assistant Professor of Humanities at the college while on his honeymoon, from which he technically still hasn’t returned.
The staff at UCG comes from a wide range of countries
Wittingslow thinks that UCG sets itself apart from other universities by the way students are taught. “We try to make it as novel and interactive as possible, taking advantage of the small format.” Classes at the college are a lot smaller than at other universities and students get more guidance from their teachers. At the moment, the student to staff ratio is only 12 to 1, but this is expected to increase to about 15 to 1 in the coming years.
The small scale of the classes is one of the main perks of the college mentioned by students. Lisa (20) from Greece says that because the classes are small, there is a lot of room for interaction. “We have a lot of open discussions,” she says, “so I think it is really different from other universities.”
Another thing that Wittingslow mentions is that the material he throws at students is often a lot more sophisticated than is usual. “Part of it is just to see what they come up with.” Students are encouraged to work together to solve difficult problems, either in class or in student-led investigations.
To help improve the inter-student collaboration, one of the pillars of the UCG is a sense of community. The school makes a big effort to ensure students feel at home, even making it obligatory for students to live on campus during their first year.
“We know internationals appreciate it a lot,” Ouwerkerk says, but he does reckognize that for Dutch students it is sometimes less convenient. Especially for those living in the area already.
“In the beginning I was sceptical about the campus because you spend every second with each other, not just in class but in house as well,” Emma says. Though in hindsight she does realise it has its perks: “you get to know each other a lot quicker and I would say we’ve become a close knit community now.”
For James (20), who came all the way from the US to study at UCG, the arranged housing was actually one of the reasons to come. He was doubting between UCG and the University of Freiburg, but at Freiburg he would have had to find his own housing on the fly. That was too intimidating, tipping the scale in favour of coming to Groningen.
Lisa has mixed feelings about the housing that the college provides. “For the first year it is okay. Living there, the conditions are not the best, but overall it gives a more familiar feeling to the place,” indicating that reality is not the same as the pictures. “I think it is easier to integrate in the beginning like that,” she admits, “but it is good that we can move out in the second year.”
In reality, the kitchens aren’t as clean. Source: RUG.nl
Everything At A Price
So far, the University College Groningen sounds pretty amazing. Unfortunately, there are always two sides of a coin. Of which you will need a lot. Tuition for EU students is more than double than studying at regular universities, like the University of Groningen; students have to pay €4000 per year. For students outside of the EU, that figure rises to €12.000 per year.
Van Ouwerkerk notes that these costs are the unavoidable consequence of the small scale set-up of the school. Apart from that, students receive a lot of guidance in the form of mentors and tutors, as well as having a relatively high number of contact-hours – in class and on extracurricular activities.
“I get the price can be an obstacle for some,” Emma says, “it did play a role into my considerations, especially because you also have to live on campus in the first year.”
Living on campus adds barbed wire to the pay-wall students need to get over in order to study at the UCG. For a room in the student accommodation of the college, students pay an average of €480 per month, apart from having to pay a €195 registration fee.
“In retrospect that was a horrible decision,” James says, referring to his choice of coming to UCG based on the provided housing. “The student accommodation is not objectively bad,” he says, “but, there are much better deals available, so I can’t help but feel a little bit upset about it.”
The average price of housing in the student city of Groningen is a lot lower. And by a lot, I mean hundreds of Euros lower. When asked about why the price of this obligatory housing is so high, van Ouwerkerk says the UCG does not have a lot of influence on it; SSH, an externally contracted organization, arranges the housing. “We aren’t too happy about it,” he says, “I talk to the SSH on a regular basis and the problem has come up.”
While he does say that they are working towards lowering the prices, he also contends that there are other reasons for the higher price. “It seems on the high end, but the grass seems greener on the other side than it is,” van Ouwerkerk says, “the rooms at SSH do come with furniture.” While having a furnished room on arrival is handy, it is doubtful that it justifies paying around €1200 extra for it on a yearly basis.
Studying differently is a costly affair
Onto The Future
The high costs of education at UCG has not affected its growth. After a slow second year of operation, a publicity campaign made sure that number of first-years rose to the projected figures in the third. The aim is to have about 200 first-years in the year 2020, when the college will also move to a new, bigger building. Van Ouwerkerk says that after reaching that number, the college would be at maximum capacity. “It is very important that the students form a sort of community group with each other,” he argues, “the bigger you become, the harder that is to maintain.”
So what kind of students should those be? Giving a taste of the sophisticated material he usually throws at his students, Dr Wittingslow answers the question:
“Isaiah Berlin draws the distinction between a hedgehog and a fox, right. So a hedgehog is a person who knows one thing really well and they view all problems through that lens. Whereas a fox may not have the same methodological level of rigour, but with that comes a plurality of methods that offer a certain kind of freedom. UCG-like colleges, they’re for foxes, not hedgehogs.”
In other words, if you’re the weirdo dreaming of one day becoming an accountant, UCG is not for you. You hedgehog.