Postgraduate Profile: Maastricht University is experiencing a British invasion

It is known as the most international university in the Netherlands, but until last year there were only 50 UK students enrolled at what is one of the top universities in the country. Now, with more than twice the number of British students than this time last year and with almost four times as many UK graduates signing up to study for a Masters degree, the University of Maastricht is hoping to be the next big benefactor of Britain’s cuts to higher education.

With the Coalition’s plans to allow English universities to charge up to £9,000 per year from 2012 and with cuts to higher education totalling 40 per cent over the next four years, staff at what has been ranked the 111th best university in the world said they are determined to attract more UK students to the Netherlands.

“Traditionally, British students have been very reluctant to leave the county. Even when we have tried to set upexchanges with universities in the UK in the past, it has been hard,” said Teun Dekker, assistant professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Maastricht.

“But this is a very interesting time and we think this culture is going to change – we want them to know there are alternatives out there.”

While the 35-year-old university, situated in the small Dutch town of Maastricht on the border of the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany, prides itself on its “international flavour” – 43 per cent of its student body come from abroad – only 120 students out of the total 13,744 come from the UK.

However, with 70 UK students joining the university last year and with a recruitment campaign that is being actively stepped-up, this year figures are expected to rise. Charging €1,672 for full-time Masters students who are EU citizens, fees are significantly lower than those offered in the UK. While British students are not entitled to loans from the Dutch government, they can access grants towards living costs if they work while studying.

Cost-benefits aside, perhaps the most striking thing about the university is its student-centred teaching model, known by its community as ‘problem-based learning’. Set in tutorial groups of no more than 12, students across all disciplines decide what problems they want to answer in their subject at the beginning of the course and spend the rest of their time trying to answer them through research and collaborative discussion.

“Teaching can be quite passive in England, but the value for money you get at Maastricht is really quite high as you meet in small groups, have informal contact with professors and are generally much more involved,” said Glenn Borrett, 28, who decided to move from Exeter to study at Maastricht after he visited the city on a cycle tour.

Now working on the UK recruitment team at the university, Borrett said he still thought there was an “information barrier” in his homeland surrounding opportunities for people to study abroad.

Borrett added that while other European universities might be better known, Maastricht was unique in that it offered more than 10 bachelor programmes and approximately 50 Master degrees taught in English.

While relatively unheard of among the undergraduates of Britain, the university has already earned acclaim among international employers. Its international business MA was recently ranked one of the top 25 in the world by the Financial Times and in terms of value for money, it ranked second globally. After the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium, the UK labour market ranks fourth on the list of where alumni gain employment.

In fact, while the Dutch higher-education system has often come under criticism for its legal obligation to offer places at universities to any student who has completed secondary school education, without an ability to select on terms of merit, Maastricht said that in fact it operates a competitive admissions process when it comes to postgraduate study.

Aalt Willem Heringa, dean of the law faculty, said the number and quality of Masters courses available at Maastricht has increased vastly over the last few years. “The economic crisis has encouraged students from southern parts of Europe to come up north. Five or 10 years ago, we didn’t have any English-taught Masters programmes,” he said.

He added: “We don’t want to be exclusively Dutch though, or German or British. We want a mix of students to facilitate more discussion in the classroom. Development is good, but it is important that it is gradual and happens over time.”

‘UK students would do well to go abroad and push themselves out of their comfort zone’

‘UK students would do well to go abroad and push themselves out of their comfort zone’

Beatrice Riley, 27, grew up in the Cotswolds and studied for her undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies and Arabic at the University of Exeter. After moving to Belgium with her boyfriend, she decided to apply for a year-long Masters in European Public Health at the University of Maastricht.

“What Maastricht offers really is an entry to mainland Europe. British students are very Britain-centred and quite isolated. From there, getting a job on the continent is quite a jump to make, as you have to learn how to work with foreigners, how to speak English in a way foreigners understand and how the whole European system works.

“In that sense, you learn an awful lot by being abroad. I have learned a lot of skills that I really can’t quantify. If, like me, you want to work in a body like the European Commission, you would do well to go abroad and push yourself out of your comfort zone. I am looking into studying a PhD here next year.

“In my case, there is not a single Dutch student or tutor on my five-person course – everybody’s German. I do sometimes feel a bit of an outsider for not speaking Dutch, as most of the signs are not written in English, but what’s great about Maastricht is if you ever feel overwhelmed by one culture, you can go to another one.

“I live in Belgium, but it is only 20 minutes for me by car to get to the Netherlands and 30 minutes to get to Germany. I am right in the centre of it all here and, as a British citizen, I travel across the borders daily and am hardly ever even asked for my passport. I don’t think UK students realise how easy it is to explore the rest of Europe.”

By Sarah Morrison, The Independent

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