The Netherlands: when the deal is this good, why are you still at home?

With bargain courses taught in English, Steve McCormack thinks students should be flocking to the Netherlands

It’s a familiar scene in many households at university application time. “There’s a course I like at Lancaster,” observes an excited 18-year-old, “and one at a place called St Andrews.” “But where are these places?” comes the quick reply. So the laptop comes out, a map is called up and far-flung towns and cities are identified in the British Isles. The realisation dawns that many potential campuses are hundreds of miles away.

But if this young adult casts their eyes across the map, over the sea and a little to the right, they’d find a country with plenty of universities located far closer to most of the UK population than many of the more wellknown names on the British circuit. What’s more, many of them have undergraduate and postgraduate courses taught in English.

For some years now, a small number of Brits have studied for degrees at universities in the Netherlands, alongside young people from all over the world. But now something of a campaign has been launched to raise awareness in the UK of the wealth of Dutch higher education options, and hopefully increase the number of Brits crossing the sea to study in the land of Robin van Persie and Vincent van Gogh.

Studying in the homeland of the artist who cut off his own ear won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Tuition fees for most first degree courses in the Netherlands are already well below current fee levels in the UK and the impending steep rises in fees at British institutions will certainly only make the Dutch option more attractive.

So how has it come about that the Netherlands has developed a university scene so potentially attractive to British students? The reasons lie mainly in centuries past. Being a small country, with two-thirds of its land mass below sea level, and few natural resources, the Netherlands always had to survive as an outward looking and tradingnation.

With travel and trade, came learning, and from as early as the 17th century, Dutch universities were putting down roots and establishing their reputations worldwide. Most lists that rank universities around Europe include several Dutch institutions in their top 100. Among the most famous names are the universities of Utrecht, Amsterdam, Groningen and Maastricht.

Another phenomenon making these places attractive to British students is language, and again there’s a historical explanation. There aren’t, and never have been, many native Dutch speakers in the world, so the people have always had to pick up other tongues to get by and get along in life. They now have a reputation for being the most prolific linguists in the world, and it’s not uncommon to meet “everyday” Dutch people who can comfortably switch between their native tongue, English and German.

It was a no-brainer for Dutch universities to introduce courses taught in English as well as Dutch, and now most institutions offer a range of such programmes. What’s more these courses have become increasingly popular with Dutch students, most of whom can speak pretty decent English by their late teens and who see the benefits in the job market of being able to boast the true bilingual attributes that a degree taught in English would offer.

“The Dutch people are aware that, whatever they do in life, they will be in contact with people from elsewhere,” says Jeanine Gregerson, director of marketing at Maastricht University, “so it’s for our own good we have so many courses taught in the English language, as well as being useful in attracting international students to study here.”

There are two main categories of university in the Netherlands that offer three-year degree courses taught in English. There are 14 research universities, which school students in what might be regarded as pure academic study and research. These include the four establishments mentioned above, as well as Delft, Leiden and Twente.

In addition, there are around 40 universities of applied science (the Dutch word is hogescholen) that offer four-year programmes focusing on the practical application of arts and sciences. These include institutions specialising in narrow vocational areas, such as maritime studies or hotel work, others with a more general scope covering arts, culture and media related careers, as well as several business schools.

Overall, there are more than 1,000 different undergraduate and postgraduate courses taught in English in the Netherlands. Among great academic strengths in the country are centres of excellence in nanotechnology, water management, renewable energy, medicine and architecture.

A common feature of the teaching method at Dutch universities is something called problem-based learning (these days also creeping in at some British universities) where the number of formal lectures is reduced and students are encouraged to influence the direction of learning, with an emphasis on solving practical problems through investigation and experimentation in small groups and on an individual basis.

“In general at Dutch universities, there’s a lot of open debate and discussion that goes with lectures,” says Gregerson. “It’s also a highly personalised education system, especially in the later phases of a degree.”

However, prospective students, seduced maybe by the Netherlands’ reputation as a liberal, free-living and freethinking society, should not assume this means university life will be a breeze and an easy ride. In fact, the opposite is the case. Formal exams represent a key and frequent part of the system, with highachievement and attendance hurdles to overcome to pass from one year to the next. For this reason, the drop-out rate is quite high.

But those students who reach the end of their course come away with a degree recognised worldwide, which, according to the Dutch authorities, gives graduates excellent chances in the international job market.

At the end of the experience, students will have spent a few years in a friendly foreign country, close to both the UK and several neighbouring mainland European countries, as well as achieved a qualification that will help them standout in the crowd.

With so many compelling reasons to study in the Netherlands, Anina Jansen, who works in the international office at Stenden University, which has several Dutch campuses, is rather surprised that relatively few Brits have grasped the opportunity so far. “We have a lot of students from Germany, China and other parts of Asia, who all tell us how attractive it is to come and study in the Netherlands, so it surprises me that we don’t see many British students yet. But it’d be great if they started coming, because I think they’d really like it.”