UCM: Ten years after
University College Maastricht is celebrating its tenth anniversary. Following in Utrecht’s footsteps, Maastricht University started its own Liberal Arts programme in 2002, a broad bachelor's programme with a lot of freedom for students to determine their own course, with academic advisors who assist – and steer – students in their choices. And with another novelty for the UM: a common room in the building to encourage academic debate and a sense of fellowship. All this, it must be said, was achieved while going against the current: quite a few faculties opposed the newcomer. “They did everything in their power to keep UCM as small as possible,” says ‘mister UCM’ professor Louis Boon, the first dean. All their efforts were in vain; UCM became a success story and was even declared Best College of the Netherlands by Keuzegids this year.
Four interviews with leading figures: the example, the instigator, the builder and the successor. As well as a few brief comments from graduates.
The example: Hans Adriaansens
It all started when sociologist Hans Adriaansens was in the United States working on his thesis, and was pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm of both students and lecturers. Quite a difference with weary, crowded lecture halls in the Netherlands. “It had nothing to do with the intelligence of the American guys and girls or their lecturers, not at all, it was the context that made the difference, the small scale, the intensive programme, the sense of responsibility. The importance of context? Throw Johan Cruijff into a swimming pool and you will see none of his football qualities.”
Adriaansens founded the first University College in Utrecht, in 1998, and was probably not amused when the UM did the same four years later. On the contrary, he thought it was great. “The more the better. I see the Colleges as a spearhead for better higher education in the Netherlands. Maastricht was pre-eminently suited because of its educational innovation, an advantage point in favour for the UCM. The advantage of Utrecht and the Roosevelt Academy is that lecturers work exclusively for the College. It is their baby, their responsibility, and their pride. Because my definition of a good lecturer is 'someone who is proud of his students’ achievements and careers'. I can do nothing with someone who still wants to win the Nobel Prize. Besides, the chances of one of his students getting one are greater, from a statistical point of view.”
Adriaansens is also in favour of residential colleges, with live-in students. He thinks that the workload of the programme requires that. Students form a community and encourage each other at difficult times. Initially the results in Maastricht were somewhat lower than at the other two Colleges. I think that this has something to do with living together, with students keeping an eye on each other. Make no mistake: if you under-achieve, you lose six hundred friends in one go.”
He sees the Colleges as the saviour of Dutch higher education, but he feels that progress is too slow. He would like to see about thirty of them, but the agreement is: one for each university. “Just look at the excellent master's studies to which our graduates are admitted. The Netherlands should take example from that.”
At the beginning of this year, Adriaansens (66) retired as dean of the Roosevelt Academy, but taking it easy is not his cup of tea: “I am involved with new Colleges in China and Indonesia. The delegations that came to visit were very impressed with the inventiveness and creativity of our students. Something that is lacking in a country like China.”
PS “Congratulations to the UCM! And tell Hospers to stop explaining. Anyone who does not know what a College entails, is not from this era.”
The instigator: Arie Nieuwenhuijzen Kruseman
“Yes, University College was my idea, and I believe Karl’s as well. I felt that we had to do more about academic education at the UM,” says Arie Nieuwenhuijzen Kruseman, currently still the chairman of the Royal Dutch Medical Association KNMG, but at the time (1998-2003) rector of the UM. Karl Dittrich was President of the Executive Board. “In those days, there was the discussion about the introduction of the master/bachelor structure in the Netherlands. I had hoped that BAMA could be used to broaden the curriculum during the bachelor's period, followed by a two-year master's, and that we could then synchronise the education blocks at the UM, so that it would be easier to cross faculty walls and take a block somewhere else. Anyway, that did not happen: nothing changed at the UM, the BAMA became a cosmetic operation; in principle, master's programmes were only allowed to last one year. Then I visited Hans Adriaansens' University College in Utrecht, and I thought that it was a great programme. If we could do something like that at the UM, we could still achieve this academic broadening.
“It was an extremely difficult idea to sell within the UM. Arts and Social Sciences feared that their faculty would be outrivaled, other faculties didn’t see the purpose or need of it and certainly didn’t want any money to be spent on it. There was also resistance from the university council, especially about the lack of clarity about financing. They were right about that but it irritated me nevertheless. I missed the urge to innovate, ambition. I honestly felt that it was a load of moaning and droning. Where is your academic zeal, I wondered?
“Eventually Karl and I just forced it through. [The professors] Louis Boon and Louk de la Rive Box got to work on it, but the two could not get along with each other, Louk left for another job, Louis worked really hard at it, he will stop at nothing. An intellectual, and inspirer for his colleagues, but also someone who would paint a room if necessary. The success is all down to him.
“UCM developed as it was meant to, but unfortunately the effects within the university have remained insufficient. See, I felt that we should not copy Utrecht on one point, which was that we should not become a residential college, with board and lodgings. Those students never see any other students. I felt that it was important that there was contact with others, that the latter would see what was happening at the College and seek more academic depth at their own faculty, that modules would be exchanged, in short, that it would spread like oil on water. Alas, that did not happen, UCM has remained an island.”
The builder: Louis Boon
“I started in spring of 2000. I was looking for something different. [Louis Boon was there at the outset of the Faculty of Psychology and had been, among other things, dean of Health Sciences; ed.] Karl Dittrich said: ‘Go take a look in Utrecht.’
Has Arie been there too? I don't know; we did not go together at any rate. I liked what I saw there; students who did not enrol with a discipline but who chose their own subjects and in doing so slowly put together their own profile, separate from the fixed faculty and disciplinary setup. Such a system would make universities more flexible when it comes to setting up and terminating programmes.
“I had cherished ideas like that for quite some time. At the beginning of the nineties, I wrote a piece, together with Gerard Korsten, about abolishing faculties and creating Schools and Departments. Nobody wanted that back then; now there was a new chance to stir up the university and break through the boundaries of the disciplines. UCM should have been a driving force in tearing down the faculties. That was never achieved, and looking back, I think differently about it now. Because when UCM became a success, the Law department wanted to set up a kind of broad foundation course together with Arts and Social Sciences and Economics. I was against that, and I was not the only one. That would have been competition for UCM.
“What also appealed to me was the possibility to select students. There are, after all, good and bad students. It is fantastic to work with the good ones, people with brains. Officially we were not allowed to select, it is against the law, but during the intake interviews we advised some students not to come and that worked rather well. Not completely, which is why we later introduced the binding study advice.
“A residential college, was another thing that I objected to, for practical reasons. Practical, because we did not have barracks as they did in Utrecht. In principle I feel that at eighteen you should be able to cook, do your shopping and think about what you are spending your money on. Having your breakfast, lunch and evening meal served until you are twenty-two, is bad for your personal development. Besides, you have to be able to meet other people.
“In the beginning there was a lot of fuss, a lot of resistance within the UM. The mere fact that we thought that students could compensate a fail for one subject with a pass for another. I feel that you should be able to make a mistake without paying extra for it. You try out an economics module, you fail and score a four, so what? Then you go in a different direction. You should not have to pay a price for that, the four can stay as far as I’m concerned. But this was not open for discussion for the deans, or for rector Arie Kruseman, because then people would start to ‘study in a calculating manner’. While the case is that these types of students want to end up well, so they study hard anyhow.
“But the greatest objection from deans such as Tummers from Arts and Social Sciences and Majoor from Economics was the money. We were not allowed to have our own members of staff, and in particular not do any research. They wanted to keep it small. The worst thing was that the deans formed a kind of supervisory board for UCM. We would draw up a budget, which was subsequently reduced to almost nothing.
“So we hired lecturers from the faculties. They were extremely enthusiastic even though they sometimes received less compensation for their hours than they did from their own faculties. I dare say that it was the lecturers’ dedication that saved UCM. In the meantime, there is in-house staff too, approximately 30 per cent. I think that is a good mix.
“There were many misconceptions about the programme itself. Such a broad programme, how would that be possible if you wanted to continue to do a master's? During the open days there were always gruff-looking parents wearing Automobile Association-type of jackets, accompanying their daughter: “Can my daughter go on to study elsewhere and get a job?” Yes of course, they get in at the best universities abroad, including Oxford and Princeton. It took some time here in the Netherlands, students had to do all kinds of brush-up courses in order to be admitted to a master's programme. It's crazy, as if a small provincial university in Groningen would know better.
“It worked out well with the funding in the end. Initially we got less than Utrecht, because they had more science in the programme, so that they would receive the high science financing from the government. The UM, on the other hand, took legal action, [rector] Gerard Mols' arguments were sound and we won. The decision was retroactive, so we received a lot of money then. Since that time, all Colleges are financed on the same terms”
The successor: Harm Hospers
What surprised Hospers most when he started as dean of UCM in 2009, was how unknown the phenomenon of a University College was both within and outside the UM. “Even today, after ten years, I have to explain what a liberal arts programme is, what our students do, and how UM lecturers are linked to the College. And there are still students who find it difficult to be accepted for master's studies. Sometimes the situation is absurd, with students being given the go-ahead by the London School of Economics, while being turned down in Rotterdam. More often or not a matter of misconception.”
He doesn’t feel the need to leave his own mark on the College, says Hospers. “I’m not like that. I also think it would be dangerous to change course when things are going well. We came out best in the Keuzegids. I haven’t so much changed things as expanded them, such as our recruiting strategy. We now have alliances with 45 partners, including Freiburg, which is now also setting up a College, and Princeton. UCM is the only Dutch institute for which Princeton gives its students permission to attend. We get good exchange students and we can send our own students to wonderful places.”
What Adriaansens sees as a disadvantage, Hospers regards as a selling point: UCM is non-residential. “Our students live in the city and because of that, they get into contact with social organisations more easily. High grades is not the only thing we feel is important for our students, but also social responsibility, engagement.”
UCM was supposed to have a contagious effect on other faculties, so that they would also broaden their programmes. Did that happen? “No, I don’t think that we have contributed to that. The trend to broaden, with minors et cetera, was already in place. We did stimulate educational innovation. We started the trend of academic advising, which you now see in several places, with matching and selection, and with research in the bachelor's phase.”
There are certainly challenges for the future. “Money will always be an issue. I would like to be less dependent on government funding. We have set up a fund into which sponsors, or idealistic financial backers, can donate money for students from outside the EU. First contacts have already been made. During the anniversary celebrations I will appeal to former students to contribute. Just like they do in the US.”
How important was the first place in the Keuzegids? Silence… “of course it is very nice. It is your own students who have given you high marks. I got a magnum bottle of champagne from the Executive Board, which I kept it for a special occasion. It presented itself this summer, when I had dinner in a student house where a lot of UCM students live. It was very enjoyable.”
Lynn Berger: student 2002-2005, now PhD student at Columbia University and editor at NRC Next
UCM made me a better reader and writer; most importantly, it taught me how to be a student. This involves reading and writing, of course, but beyond that it's about the way in which you approach questions, bodies of literature, and traditions of thought. I sometimes wish it had lasted longer, though, or that time had passed less quickly by; by the time I finally figured out what UCM was all about, it was already over!
Jan Machielsen: graduated in 2005, now Junior Research Fellow in the Humanities in Oxford
“When I finished University College Maastricht I could not wait to leave. I had decided on a path to follow and a subject (sixteenth-century history) that interested me after being inspired by a course during a semester abroad. Back in Maastricht, I found the courses on offer limiting. Throughout the years that followed I wished I had studied something more ‘useful’ and specialist that would have aided my doctoral studies (by which I mean, classics, theology or simply history). It is only now when I have students of my own that I have come to realize the value of the skills and the critical mindset that UCM did teach me.”
Cyriel Rademacher: graduated in 2011, now finishing his dissertation for the Master International Political Economy at Leeds Metropolitan University
“I have been very happy with the vast amount of work and the high level of education, which made me one of the most prepared students for the master program at Leeds Metropolitan University. Where everybody else had a hard time trying to cope with the workload, I was already used to that. I do regret that UCM had a limited choice of real social science (read: financial oriented) courses, which made me choose several courses which were in fact not very useful for the rest of my career.”