A golden age for Dutch Masters

Low tuition fees and the quality of student life mean there's never been a better time for postgraduate study in Holland

British students have been notoriously resistant to the idea of foreign study, compared with their Continental counterparts, but that is changing fast. The reason is simple: the sudden hike in UK tuition fees. This increase has coincided with changes introduced across the Channel, where the Bologna Accord has made the British model – a three-year degree followed by a Masters – the standard in the Netherlands.

Dutch universities compete hard with each other and much of their marketing is aimed at British graduates looking for further education. Tuition fees for a government-subsidised Masters course are €1,713 a year (about £1,450). That's roughly one-sixth the cost of an English equivalent. The cost will rise to €1,771 (£1,500) later this year.

The web search site Mastersportal lists 907 Masters courses in Holland, compared with 706 in Sweden. Amsterdam University leads the field with 244, followed by Utrecht (90), Groningen (86), Leiden (83) and Maastricht (74). Around half of these courses are taught in English.

Marcel Dalziel of MJD Consultancy is running a student world fair at the Emirates Stadium in London on 17 March. "At the first one, last year, about 22 per cent of the audience were interested in postgraduate degrees in Holland," he says. "This time we expect that number to be approaching 40 per cent."

The reasons go beyond tuition fees. The cost of living is much cheaper in the Netherlands than it is in the UK, he says. Almost everyone in the country speaks English and many university text books are written in the language. More than that, Dalziel says, Holland is geared to students. "The Dutch embrace them – it's all bicycles, clean, pedestrianised high streets, trendy little bars and restaurants."

There are now around 82,000 foreign students at Dutch universities and colleges, around 10 per cent of the total. The university with the most foreign students is Maastricht.

Of the 14 research universities (excluding medical schools) in the Netherlands, some are highly rated internationally, notably Amsterdam, Utrecht and Leiden. Prospective postgrads need to be careful, though. There is a big difference between research universities, which are primarily academic and are the only ones that can award doctorates, and the universities of applied sciences, which are mainly vocational but which also offer Masters degrees. There are also private universities and institutes.

Annagien Lucas, of Leiden University, points out that Masters courses can vary considerably in their cost and admission criteria. "The difference is whether or not they have been subsidised by the government," she says.

"Not all programmes want this funding, because the moment you ask for help the government has some say in how the courses are organised. That could be at the level of deciding whether there is a need for the programme in Holland."

Advanced Masters programmes cater for students who already have a Masters or have several years' work experience. An MBA would fall into this category. The study is more intense, the demands are higher and so is the cost.

Leiden's MSc in international relations and diplomacy, for example, is a non-subsidised, two-year course with intensive course work. It costs €15,750 a year. But the same university runs a one-year Masters in politics and bureaucracy in the Hague, the Dutch seat of government, for €1,1713.

Both Leiden and Utrecht are primarily student towns. "One in four inhabitants here is a student," says Nadja van Haren from the HU University of Applied Sciences in Utrecht, one of the town's five universities. "Utrecht is in the middle of the Netherlands so you can go anywhere by train – Amsterdam is only 20 minutes away."

Sam Sullivan, 22, from Blackwood, near Cardiff, saw the possibilities early. He took a BA in politics and history at University College, Utrecht, and is now doing a Masters in conflict studies and human rights at Utrecht University.

"I chose this course because, unusually, it's taught for the first half and after that you're left to do your own research," he says. "Usually a postgrad course is one or the other."

Like other students, he sings the praises of Utrecht as a place to study. "It's a young person's city, a great place to relax. There are endless sports clubs. But it's hard to learn Dutch because as soon as you try, someone replies in English."

During his undergraduate course he lived on campus, but for the Masters he found his own room with no difficulty. "You do hear about people having problems but there are a lot of networks out there."

The next step for Sam is either a PhD or a job in industry. "There are a few niche opportunities for people with Dutch experience," he says.

Amy Sutcliffe, 29, from Cheshire, is taking a Masters course in literature and cultural criticism at the same university. The course is taught in Dutch, English and German and the standard of teaching, she says, is at least as high as that at Newcastle University, where she did her first degree, in German.

"The lecturers are from a variety of nationalities – Belgian, Irish, Dutch. Occasionally someone struggles with English but it's rare. It's well-organised and the faculty are very good at answering emails."

Prospective Masters students will naturally gravitate towards universities specialising in their subjects. Wageningen, for example, is known for food science and nutrition, and offers 28 MSc programmes taught in English, ranging from animal sciences to hydrology and water quality, a Dutch speciality. The University of Twente, the Netherlands' only full-campus university, is entrepreneurial and claims to have produced 600 spin-off companies.

Masters programmes are organised on a credit system: one credit represents 28 hours of work and 60 credits a year's full-time study. There are usually four eight-week terms a year, starting in September. Students working 32 hours a month are eligible for a government grant, but only after three months in the country.

And the nightlife? "Superb," says Joe Vanags-Fleming, from London, who studied history at the University of Amsterdam. "In terms of the local club scene Amsterdam is closer to Berlin than London. But in such a multicultural city you can find pretty much anything."

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