In his novel The Fall, Albert Camus' narrator addresses the reader with the words: "Holland is a dream, Monsieur, a dream of gold and smoke, smokier by day, more gilded by night." Rather more prosaically the same character later expresses the view that everyone in Holland "is an expert in painting and tulips", and it's perhaps this description that best sums up the stereotypical view of the Netherlands.
Look a little more closely, though, and it becomes clear that this small nation has a lot to offer for students. For a start, it's cheerful: according to the 2011 UN Human Development Index, the Netherlands is the third happiest nation on earth (maybe it's the flowers); the UK skulked in at No 28. Academically, the numbers are bright too – 10 universities make it into the Times Higher Education Supplement's top 200 institutions, and there are some 81,000 international students in the country.
"Like many people, I hadn't considered the Netherlands prior to going there," says Craig Thompson, academic dean of Stenden University of Applied Sciences. "I've been pleasantly surprised – it's a great environment." Originally from the UK and with experience of teaching in universities here as well as overseas, Thompson believes Dutch society will appeal to students. "It's a very easy society for an English person to live in. People are very welcoming, and willing to speak English."
The country's higher education institutions all lie within easy reach of the UK by air and rail. Traditional research universities, such as Groningen and Amsterdam, are similar to their UK counterparts, explains Thompson. But there are also universities of applied science, such as Stenden. "They offer more practical vocational qualifications, while traditional ones offer courses such as medicine and humanities," he says.
Some courses follow the three-year model familiar to UK undergraduates. However, many degrees are spread over four years and include a year in industry, which students can choose to take in a different country. "It's a real strength of the education system here," says Thompson. "Students graduate with a real understanding of industry, and it's a shame that's disappearing from some UK universities."
The choice of institutions means prospective students have plenty of options when it comes to courses, but the differences don't end there. The unique Dutch system of teaching is another factor contributing to the nation's educational appeal. "We have a lot more contact time than any English university," explains Emma Booker, currently studying at Nyenrode New Business School. "My friends say that going to uni in England is like being a number: you see your tutor for an hour and that's it for the week." By contrast, she explains that the Dutch emphasis is on group work and small classes – the average is around 25 students.
"Tutors look at you as a person, not a student," adds fellow Nyenrode student Josh Ward. "They like to debate and have you think about what you're learning. It's very enjoyable." For Josh, a big part of the attraction is the open-mindedness of staff and the focus on personal development: students have personal coaching sessions every few months to talk about their progress. "They'll focus more on your character and less on your academic skills."
Academic skills do remain vital, as you'd expect from the country that gave the world the intellectual figurehead of the Reformation, Erasmus of Rotterdam. But they're applied in a slightly different way when it comes to admissions. The emphasis can be less on grades achieved at A-level and more on simply having the relevant qualifications in the right subjects. This makes applying slightly easier. Students should be aware that the flip-side of this coin is potentially selection at the end of the first year, with some students losing their places if they don't meet the required standard. But, of course, all the institutions vary slightly.
Beyond the classroom there are other benefits. The cost of living is broadly comparable to that in the UK, according to staff and students, but the big difference – perhaps the principal draw for credit-crunched UK applicants – is the fees. On average they're around €1,700 (approx £1,500) a year, in marked contrast to the £9,000 that's about to become the norm at many UK universities.
"Talking to parents, previously they wouldn't even have considered looking overseas for their children's educations," says Thompson, "but that kind of price gap makes a massive difference." Ian Whalley, whose son is studying in the Netherlands, admits as much: "The cost makes it much more attractive than the UK."
Students get a lot for their money in terms of career prospects, too. Thompson claims that 97 per cent of Stenden graduates are in employment four months after graduation: "I didn't believe it so I went out and checked it several times, and the figures are accurate." It's a view supported by Timo Timmerman, dean of Nyenrode New Business School. "Graduates are easily accepted onto all major Masters programmes and obtain traineeships and jobs without much difficulty," he says. "Some students are also successful in starting businesses."
But before they graduate there's all that time among the gold and smoke (and a few tulips, admittedly) for students to enjoy. Dutch society has a lot to offer beyond the obvious "charms" of Amsterdam and the ubiquitous bicycle ("Everyone is always on their bikes, rain, snow, whatever!" says Booker, laughing). "Dutch people are very laid back; nothing is a bother and they'll accept everyone," she adds, a view that Timmerman shares. "Outside the classroom, students will experience a vibrant social environment and typically a tolerant society that's receptive to English speakers."
All in all, it's hard to see why students wouldn't want to give the Netherlands a chance, says Thompson, who finds that once students take the plunge they quickly grow in confidence. "We've seen that it really broadens the minds and the career opportunities of graduates," he says. Ward agrees: "Students who come here want to develop themselves and better themselves. It's not just about getting an education and moving on."
And if that's not enough? Consider Salma Ali's first experience of Holland. "I came to Amsterdam for a small holiday and I saw the street cleaners dancing," says the Amsterdam University College student, "so I thought [this] couldn't be a bad place."
'Living in a foreign land changes you'
Taran Carter, originally from Sheffield, began an international business management studies course at HAN University of Applied Sciences in January.
"When I was looking into universities I didn't know where I wanted to go or even what I wanted to do. I read an article about UK students going abroad and thought, 'Why not apply?' I didn't know a lot about Holland: I'd been to Amsterdam and that was it!
The way the courses are taught is one of the things that appealed to me. In the UK you don't get much contact with tutors and you're not in the university that much. Here it's a lot more practical, there's a lot of group work and I'm in most days. I learn more and do more. You get the chance to study abroad for a year too, and that was another one of the reasons I came here.
I've been telling all my friends that I didn't expect university to be like this. It feels more like school: smaller classes and lots of group work; and we really get to know our teachers. It's not like someone stands up in a hall and if you miss what they say, you've missed it.
I really thought I'd hate the first week but I loved it, meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. I've settled in more quickly than I thought; I worried about communicating but I've found it easier than most. If a Dutch person is speaking English to a Chinese person they can find it hard to understand each other, but as a native English speaker I know what they're trying to say and I'm helping everyone out, which is good.
I've made quite a few friends. In class we know each other really well because we spend so much time together, so we're relaxed outside of class as well and will go out for drinks and things like that. On the first day the uni took everyone on the course to a restaurant, so right away I found people I had things in common with and people I could talk to.
I'd completely recommend it, simply because of the way living in another country changes you – you grow up so quickly. I'd say just go for it if you're interested. I've felt comfortable from the first day. Dutch people are much more friendly than English people, too: you can just have a conversation with someone at the bus stop."