Views from outside the gates

By Irina Fomichev and Laurence Herfs

UCU received quite a bit of media attention over the summer. After all, honours education is gaining in popularity everywhere in the Netherlands. But are we represented in a neutral and informative way? Or is there a note of criticism and judgment? The Boomerang investigates the outsiders’ opinion.

UCU has known criticism from the day it was established. In 1998, Dutch newspaper Trouw already published a critical piece claiming UCU to be an elitist school, highlighting the high tuition fees and selection procedure. Such arguments continue to pop up in the local and national news.

On September 2nd 2013, the concept of University Colleges was covered by the Dutch National News, which mentioned the small-scale education and the emphasis on academic skills. A critical note was placed on the high tuition fees and the highly competitive atmosphere that may lead to stress. UCU was is usually depicted as a place meant for only excellent students and, occasionally, overachievers.

The online forums on which students from other universities and undecided high school students discuss UCU reflect this. Many worry about the social pressure at UCU. An anonymous student claims: “You constantly need to act cheerfully and you barely get any time to yourself.” Others feel that UCU is not a place for overachievers at all but a waste of time and a place people go for fun. Many prospective students wonder about the value of a liberal arts Bachelor’s.

The fact that UCU seems quite isolated keeps coming up in these discussions as well. Students from other University Colleges share this view. “Some people here think the campus in Utrecht is very closed off because it is located outside of the city, surrounded by a gate,” says Fleur Dingen from Leiden University College.

At the other end of the spectrum, UCU enthusiasts on the forums see UCU as a place where they can break free from the ‘zesjescultuur’: the Dutch mentality of working just hard enough to pass. Those who go on to get accepted usually begin a Facebook group for their generation as soon as they can, in order to express excitement about the college and their new life at UCU.

It is remarkable how Ronald Plasterk, Dutch labor party member and future Minister of Education, changed his view about UCU after a visit. “UCU is nothing but a day-care centre for rich kids”, he famously stated in a critical opinion piece in 2004. Later, he took his words back and expressed a more nuanced view, admitting that it was perfect for students unsure what academic discipline to focus on at the age of 18.

So are we sometimes judged so harshly because we are misunderstood? By some, yes. Especially online, where people have more freedom to express exaggerated opinions without being well-informed. But we shouldn’t equate a critical attitude with the lack of information. If anything, Auke van der Veen’s article in the Groene Amsterdammer showcased that views from the inside can be critical as well.

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