Liberal Arts & Sciences
Image: University College Groningen
The first and most important thing you should know before reading any further is that liberal arts is not a subject, but an educational philosophy. You never take classes in liberal arts at university. Neither will you graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts.
So, what exactly will you learn? First, an interdisciplinary curriculum that you design yourself (hence “liberal”). Second, to think big. Liberal arts degrees are not designed to train you for a specific job or profession. As a liberal arts student, you will develop a broad range of knowledge and skills, which you can apply to many of the issues you are likely to face in your life and career.
This might sound abstract and could contradict what you have been told about university education, particularly when you compare it to the majority of British university degrees. So why should you choose liberal arts?
To fully understand the purposes and benefits of liberal arts, it is worth having a short look at its history. The ancient Greeks invented the liberal arts education model. They started with only three subjects: grammar, rhetoric and logic. During the medieval period, the curriculum was extended to cover four more subjects: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. At that time, it was essential for people to be knowledgeable in many fields because it allowed them to have an active and virtuous civic life (e.g. participate in public debate, defend themselves in court and perform military service). In other words, the aim of a liberal arts education was to create fulfilled individuals and responsible citizens.
Nowadays, the liberal arts offer a much larger and updated range of subjects, but the essence remains the same: to develop well-rounded individuals motivated for lifelong learning and capable of contributing to wider society. As global challenges become more complex and require more collective effort to tackle, a liberal arts education is as relevant as it has ever been. Only through exposure to a variety of fields of study can you have unique perspectives on issues and develop creative solutions for them. This is the key to a successful career and meaningful life.
If this sounds attractive, this could be the main reason why you might move to The Netherlands, the hub of liberal arts education (taught in English) in (modern) Europe. To take a liberal arts degrees, you have to attend a special type of institution called University Colleges. There are ten of them in the Netherlands.
1. Will my liberal arts degree from a Dutch university be recognised in the UK?
Yes, as with any other Bachelor’s degree from a Dutch university. At the end of a liberal arts undergraduate programme, you earn a Bachelor of Arts (BA) or a Bachelor of Sciences (BSc), depending on the focus of the curriculum. These qualifications are considered equivalent to British bachelor’s degrees, so you shouldn’t have any problems using them to apply for postgraduate courses or jobs in the UK. Many liberal arts students go on to study Masters degrees at the best universities in the world.
2. Does it make sense to study liberal arts in the Netherlands?
In most parts of Europe, students receive a comprehensive liberal arts education while still at school but this is not the case in the United Kingdom where A’ levels require earlier specialisation. It might therefore be argued that A’ levels are not the best preparation for a liberal arts education but you would not be seriously disadvantaged should you choose to study such a degree. It might actually make up for some of the gaps in your secondary education. Indeed, some British universities have started to offer degrees in the liberal arts but they are rarely as wide-ranging as those in the Netherlands.
There are several places in the world where you can choose to study the liberal arts. American liberal arts colleges are perhaps the most famous. In Asia, liberal arts Bachelor’s degrees are available at a number of Japanese and Korean universities.
What sets Dutch liberal arts degrees apart from the rest is their three-year structure and extensive focus on Europe. At American and Japanese liberal arts colleges, the standard length of course is four years.
Whichever Dutch university college you choose, you are likely to get acquainted with three topics, also the three greatest challenges in Europe nowadays: health, sustainability and diversity.
With this in mind a degree from a Dutch liberal arts college would best prepare you for a future career in or related to Europe.
3. Where can I study liberal arts in the Netherlands?
The following Dutch university colleges offer liberal arts programmes:
- University College Groningen
- University College Amsterdam
- University College Utrecht
- University College Roosevelt
- University College Tilburg
- University College Twente
- University College Maastricht
- University College Venlo
- Erasmus University College Rotterdam
- Leiden University College
These institutions are similar in numerous ways. They all provide:
- a residential setting (compulsory except at Tilburg)
- a small scale, well-rounded and flexible education
- an intense and intellectually challenging curriculum in English, however, with little emphasis on work experience.
There are many clear benefits that come with their liberal arts education model. In a close-knit community where you live and study with your classmates 24/7, you would have the opportunity to build lifelong friendships. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum, you have a lot more variety in your courses and become a generalist with more career options after university. Above all, liberal arts is an educational philosophy, so what you get out of a liberal arts education is not only knowledge and skills, but also a mindset. Indeed, the ultimate goal of letting you be in charge of what you learn is to train you to be an independent thinker.
A liberal arts culture can also be challenging.You can easily lose track if you’re not good at managing your studies. Moreover, the workload is heavy, so there is little spare time for work experience. This can be a slight risk for your career prospects. The common wisdom is that a generalist can do anything. However, the downside is that without much work experience you may need to look for work experience at other points in your life.
Choosing the right university college that match your personalities and career ambitions would help you get the most values out of your liberal arts education and minimise the risks. Here we highlight the key differences between the liberal arts curricular at Dutch university colleges so you can decide which one is the best fit for you.
Focus areas (what can you study)
You wouldn’t choose liberal arts if you have already decided to study one subject only at university. You choose liberal arts because it gives you the freedom to experiment with different fields and opens the door to unusual but interesting career paths.
However, the drawback is that designing your own curriculum is not an easy task. Usually it takes a member of faculty to help you choose the right path! Some students are good at reflecting on and integrating what they learn along the way, others struggle to find a clear direction on their own. For this reason, every university college sets out a few focus areas to ensure that whichever way you customise your degree, the knowledge and skills you acquire are always connected in a meaningful way. These focus areas essentially restrict what you can study during your degree. They should play an important role in your university choice. If you are interested in learning more about arts, for example, why join a programme with a strong focus on engineering?
You can identify the focus areas of a liberal arts programme by looking at its themes, majors or course directory.
Many Dutch university colleges use central themes to help their students set learning outcomes. These themes tend to address the most prominent global challenges. You should choose the programme whose themes excite you the most, because you will spend the next three years learning every aspect of these topics. Admittedly, some themes involve more scientific knowledge, and others require more input from social sciences and humanities research.
University College Groningen would be an ideal choice if you want to combine different disciplines to ask original questions and deliver creative responses to the three issues: (i) energy, (ii) healthy ageing and (iii) sustainable society. If you seek more humanities and natural sciences options, Amsterdam University College might be a better choice, because their programmes are organised around six themes: (i) energy, climate and sustainability, (ii) health and well-being, (iii) life, evolution and universe, (iv) cities and cultures, (v) social systems and (vi) information, communication and cognition.
With the theme “bring technology and society together”, University College Twente is the only institution that incorporates engineering into a liberal arts education. This engineering component is tailored to students who are good at sciences and want to capitalise on this strength but are aware of the issues that technology can have on society as a whole. In contrast, Leiden University College attracts students more drawn into global social issues such as (i) peace and justice, (ii) sustainability, (iii) prosperity and (iv) diversity.
With a narrower geopolitical scope, University College Tilburg’s programme cater those having a particular interest in Europe. It addresses five topical issues of the continent:(i) modernity, (ii) identity and evil, (iii) war, (iv) law and (v) film and consumerism.
Some university colleges allow students to enjoy the maximum freedom of a liberal arts education by letting them select and combine courses from a directory to form a degree. Of course, there are graduation requirements to ensure that you make sensible choices, but essentially you can explore a much wider set of possibilities than following themes. This is the approach of Erasmus University College, University College Utrecht and University College Roosevelt. These institutions require you to take classes across the Humanities, Sciences and Social Sciences departments, but put you in charge of setting the themes and directions for your degree. They might be the best options if you are keen to focus on arts and finance, or any other subject that is absent from the central themes of many Dutch liberal arts programmes. They are also suitable for students who are confident in their abilities to set learning objectives and plan to achieve them.
At the other end of the spectrum, if you want to enjoy the flexibility of a liberal arts education while ensuring you studies have a meaningful focus, we recommend choosing the university colleges offering majors. A major contains a portfolio of courses designed to deeper your understanding about a topic. Picking a major means giving your degree a specialisation. The majors available at University College Groningen, ranging from culture and media to human anatomy, are broad and generic. They give you plenty of room to further tailor your degree to your needs within the humanities, social sciences and sciences. In contrast, University College Tilburg and Leiden University College only offer five and six majors respectively. Focusing on a specific field, for example “Law in Europe” and “Global Public Health”, they closely resemble the majors you would get at a normal Dutch university. This means you would have minimal freedom to customise your degree.
Degree structure (how you will study)
All Dutch liberal arts programmes require a lot of independent study. However, each has a unique supporting structure in place to facilitate your studies and guide you on building a curriculum.
Here we give you three examples of how you will typically study in a liberal arts programme. You will see that every degree has three main components: compulsory courses, majors and minors. Nonetheless, each degree structure gives you a different level of flexibility. Your task is to identify the programme with the level of flexibility you are most comfortable with.
At University College Groningen, compulsory courses account for third of your degree. They are consisted of a core programme (30 credits) in the first year, and an integrative project (15 credits) and a research and methodology programme (15 credits) in the second year. You will spend 50% of your degree working toward a major(26 majors available). This involves 5 academic core courses (30 credits) in the first year, 9 courses of a selected major (45 credits) in the second and third years, and a capstone project/thesis(15 credits). For the remaining 30 credits (16%) of your degree, you can either study abroad or stay in Groningen to do a minor. Other institutions that use the same structure (One third is compulsory. Two third is your choice) are Amsterdam University College, Leiden University College and University College Tilburg. Moreover, at all four university colleges, for your major, you will take a coherent package of courses following a central theme. These institutions have the most fixed degree structure among Dutch university colleges.
On the other hand, Erasmus University College, University College Utrecht and University College Roosevelt offer semi-structured liberal arts degrees. Choosing their programmes, you take compulsory introductory courses in your first year, but from the second year onward, you have the freedom to gradually build a major out of a broad portfolio of courses offered by different departments. In other words, for two third of the degree that you have control over, you have much more flexibility to shape how it looks like.
At its most extreme, the liberal art education at University College Twente is freestyle. There are no fixed courses, no conventional exams and no grades! The whole degree is a self-designed, self-regulated learning project. It is the perfect choice for those who like breaking the norm and are willing to work hard without much guidance.
In addition to the course structure, you can look at the teaching style of each university college to get an idea of how you will study there. For example, University College Groningen and University College Twente pioneer project-based learning. Instead of attending lectures, you will work in small teams to contribute to a project where you learn how to deal with challenges in a real-life setting. This approach would suit “doers” who are keen to get their hand dirty. If you are more a strategist, perhaps you would find the problem-based learning model at Erasmus University College more attractive. For each course, 10 students meet in 3-hour sessions once a week, guided by a tutor, to solve a hypothetical problem from trigger materials. On the other hand, choosing University College Tilburg and Leiden University College means most of your classes will be in the form of lectures. This is perfectly fine if you are more into the research route and want to approach a field in a more systematic way.
Other opportunities (what you can do outside of the classroom)
The main goal of a liberal arts education is to create scholars. The workload is heavy, leaving little space for work experience during the academic year but there is most certainly time for extracurricular activities. Dutch university colleges run a wide range of initiatives to make sure their students have the competencies needed for their future employment. When doing research about a university college, it is worth checking the options it offers, and whether they can help you gain an advantage in your desired career path.
For example, students at University College Groningen can go on an exchange in their final year, improving their language skills and cultural awareness while living abroad for a semester. Alternatively they could choose to immerse themselves fully in Dutch culture and language by staying on campus. Choosing University College Tilburg, you will benefit from making contributions to their social innovation projects. If you wish to learn a foreign language during your degree, Amsterdam University College gives you that option through their “Global Identity Experience” programme. For those who want an internship with credit towards graduation, University College Utrecht might be a preferable choice. At an extreme, if you want your hobbies to count toward your degree, you should go for University College Twente, where 10% of the curriculum is dedicated to your individual learning project.
4. Where are the best places for Liberal Arts in the Netherlands?
Hopefully by the time you reach this point, you will have realised that each Dutch university college offers a unique liberal arts education. We have pointed out how each degree programme suits a different type of person, so it is entirely up to you to decide which one is the best for you.
5. What grades do I need to get in?
Because of the small scale of Dutch liberal arts degree programmes, they are selective. In general, you need at least 32 IB points, or BBB in A' Levels to get in.
There are two exceptions. University College Utrecht only accepts students with at least AAB in the A' Levels. To be eligible for a place at University College Tilburg, you must have at least 3 GCSEs (A*- C) and 3 A Levels (A* - C) (six different subjects).
Some Dutch university colleges also require you to have Maths in your A' Levels subject mix. You need to have at least a B in Maths if you want to apply to Amsterdam University College, University College Twente, or Leiden University College.