The Netherlands: A modern outlook to learning

Are you looking for practical professional training, personal tutoring or a more traditional academic environment?

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The Independent Online

A stay in a four-star hotel, the best of new Dutch cuisine; universities in the Netherlands know how to woo prospective students.

These facilities are actually part of Stenden University and the waiters, receptionists and managers are students learning the nitty gritty of international hotel management. Small wonder John Whalley, a Gloucestershire-based student, has not even looked at the five UK universities that offered him places. He's already accepted a place at Stenden in September and is preparing for four years of study mixed with hands-on professional experience. "We were shown phenomenal customer service," says his father Ian Whalley, who visited the university with John. "The scale of the facilities was amazing. It was a weird experience, walking through a hotel reception into the university. I was quite sceptical about the teaching styles (Stenden uses the problem-based learning method) but it's very self-directed. I was impressed."

Stenden, which is enjoying increased interest from prospective British students, is one of 40 universities of applied sciences in the Netherlands, called "hogescholen" in Dutch, and it offers 11 English-language undergraduate degrees such as leisure management and international logistics. Sometimes compared to Britain's former polytechnics, hogescholen exist alongside research universities. Between them they offer around 1,500 English-language undergraduate courses.

As their name suggests, universities of applied sciences provide practical, professional training. "You leave ready to hit the ground running," says Joost Steppe, marketing director at Stenden. Semesters are often punctuated by work-based projects and internships. Research universities on the other hand, which number just 14, focus more on research-oriented work in a traditional academic environment. That said, most graduates of research universities go on to work outside academia. It costs the same to study at both types of institution but research universities demand a higher qualification from Dutch school-leavers and their undergraduate courses last three years, as opposed to the four for applied sciences. And hogescholen graduates wishing to go on to further study may have to complete an interim year or semester, mainly to get familiar with research methods.

Alongside these two types of institution, there exist a handful of smaller selective colleges such as the recently founded Amsterdam University College, which recruits just 200 students a year. These colleges, mostly affiliated to research universities, offer English-taught broad degrees and attract an international mix of students. Classes are smaller – a maximum of 25 student at AUC and often fewer – with an emphasis on personal tutoring.

Dutch degrees, or diplomas, are relatively unknown on the UK job market as the first batch of graduates has yet to emerge in large numbers. While the Dutch government website gives details of international courses, it doesn't rank universities. It's up to prospective students to examine each university's marketing bumph to get a feel for a place and check they are accredited with the Dutch NVAO system. Nor are international university rankings helpful as applied sciences institutions aren't listed, although The Times Higher Education ranks 12 Dutch research universities in the top 200 in the world, with Utrecht University as the nation's best. "Young people going to these very good institutions are pioneers," says Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HESCU). "Get as much information as you can to convince employers as to the worth of your degree."

Dutch degrees are still few and far between in the UK; only a few thousand British students venture to the Netherlands each year, compared to nearly two million who are currently studying in the UK, and many have yet to graduate. "Much will depend on the calibre of the graduates," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "I would be surprised if it was not quite high, especially as it takes a certain level of maturity and self confidence to take a degree overseas in the first place."

Numbers of international students, many Germans among them, enrolling at Dutch research universities are increasing faster than the numbers entering those of applied science, and the British are definitely interested, appearing in greater numbers at university open days.

Applied science university NHTV Breda, is the world's largest tourism school and holds an international course in game architecture and design. It has received a flurry of enquiries from Britain and hosts a dozen UK undergraduates among its 500 international students. "Teaching is quite innovative," says marketing manager Harrie van Elderen. "We have a less traditional relationship between student and lecturer; more open." Anecdotally, British students are surprised at the lack of hierarchy between staff and students at these types of universities. "You can just interrupt and ask a question," says one UK student. "It takes a bit of getting used to."

Maastricht University, a research university, remains the most popular with UK students and is renowned for its problem-based learning approach. "There's a real focus on individual responsibility for learning," says 23-year-old undergraduate Dani Older from Guildford, currently in her second year of an arts and culture programme. Her classes are small, attendance is strict and she takes exams at the end of eight-week modules. "Everybody takes their studies very seriously."

It's worth researching how institutions teach; some courses offer a hybrid version of problem-based learning while others can be hands-off with large lectures of up to 300 students. Applied science universities probably offer more teaching contact in the first year of a course, says Jessica Winters, international coordinator at the research University of Groningen. "You are more taken by the hand. Coursework might be less analytical. At research universities, you are expected to be more independent."

British student Ritwik Swain, who is reading psychology at Groningen, checked up on the university and course beforehand. "My course is quite research and theory focused," he says. "I was happy; the university is old and has Nobel laureates. My course involves a lot of reading and little contact time with lecturers though." Groningen is a perfect student venue: historic, relatively young and the only place in the Netherlands where bars don't have closing times. It has just been voted 'most recommended' by international students for the third year in a row in a poll by the UK-based international benchmarking organisation i-graduate. Around 60 international students visited Groningen for its most recent open day and Winters administers social media including a Facebook page for international students, handy for practical questions.

However liberal and egalitarian Dutch universities appear, a word of warning from Marcel Dalziel managing director of The Student World, which organises UK events for international universities. He expects 20 Dutch universities at the next event on March 17. "They work you very hard – harder than in the UK. You have to pass quarterly exams. Dutch universities provide very high-quality degrees which are beginning to become more recognised internationally with employers."

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