University College Groningen: a Deep Dive

I was really excited to visit Groningen again.  When I visited last year, it was just for a few hours.  This time I was there for 3 days exploring the town and meeting with administrators and students from Groningen University College (UCG). Since so many of you have expressed interest in Dutch universities, particularly the university colleges, we are bringing you what we are calling a “deep dive” into UCG.

Let’s start with the city. Groningen is located in the northernmost part of the country, about a two-hour train ride from Amsterdam. It is the youngest city in the Netherlands, with half of the population under 35. Further, 25% of the residents are students. Because Groningen is the urban center of the northern Netherlands and has such a large student population, its cultural scene is remarkably big and diverse with an strong underground music scene, a comics museum, a tobacco museum, and a science museum. It has a vibrant nightlife, dominated by students.

As is the case for many European schools, there is no true campus, and buildings are located throughout the city. They’re easy to identify with the red triangle visible in the picture on the left.  In some cities, this seems disjointed but in Groningen, it feels as though the city and university are very connected and the town serves as one big campus. There is a really community feel throughout the town. Almost everywhere I went, I observed people running into people they know.  Like most places in the Netherlands, English is widely spoken. People are also really accommodating and friendly about the use of English. I was in one cafe that did not have an English menu and the waitress offered to translate the menu for me verbally!  Thanks to Google Translate I did not have to take her up on that.

The majority of my time in Groningen was spent learning about UCG in depth.  University colleges in the Netherlands are the liberal arts program within a research university, and they are self-contained. UCG is a department of the University of Groningen, which is a top 100 school in the various global rankings.  Though the overall university is one of the oldest schools in the country (founded in 1614), UCG is still a fairly young program, having started in 2015. They stayed intentionally small with around 30 students admitted each year for the first two years in order to straighten out any kinks that arise with any new program. By the third year, they admitted 86 students and anticipate a larger number next year as well.

UCG requires that each student lives in a student residence for one year.  UCG students are generally placed together in the residences, which consist of a very large single room with bathrooms, kitchen and living area shared with seven other students. Here’s a video tour of the residence. These cost 480 Euros a month. After the first year, students can stay or take advantage of the many other student housing options in Groningen including the new Student Hotel, apartment rentals, or even a houseboat rental!

What’s Your Major?

Each University College in the Netherlands has a different distinguishing quality.  At UCG, their focus is maximizing the integrative aspects of their program, combining more than one area of study.  They take an interdisciplinary approach and use project-based education.  During the first year, student take core credits in Global Challenges, Research and Methodology, and Integrative Projects and Academic Skills.  The other half of the year is made up of credits from Sciences, Social Sciences, or Humanities.

Like American schools, students choose their major in the second year, after being exposed to the various fields of study. UCG has 5 majors students can choose from: Physics of Energy (which includes Applied Physics, Astronomy, Math and Industrial Engineering), Health and Life Sciences (Global Health, Immunology, Human Anatomy, Genetics, Cell Biology and Biochemistry), Cognition and Behavior (Sociology, Environmental Psychology, Biopsychology, Cognition and Decision Making), Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (International Law, Ethics, Global Economics, Political Science, Cognitive Neuroscience) and Reflecting on Culture, History and Criticism (Culture and Media, History, Religion and Diversity, Cultural Geography, International Relations, Philosophy). Students have a lot of freedom within their major.  A student with a Reflecting on Culture, History and Criticism major, for instance, can have (but isn’t required to have) a lot more variety in their courses than a student who is in a pure culture and media program. Students also have the opportunity to create their own major by combining areas of study. UCG students are also able to take courses offered by the overall university (which has 29 English conducted bachelor’s programs) which add to the possibilities and flexibility.

Integrative Projects is a required course of each of the three years, culminating in a 15 credit Capstone Project. Since this is such a key feature in the UCG approach to education, I had a lot of questions about it. The goals of integrative projects is to teach students to communicate across the disciplines, acquire scholarly knowledge, and learn useful ways to apply that knowledge.  The first year, students are given topics such as immigration or global warming and their projects include building communication and presentation skills and developing research approaches. The second year projects focus more on acquiring the scholarly knowledge through a chosen project and the third year students have to set up a project with defined goals for their Capstone Project. Some examples of the projects can be found here

There is a lot of value to having these projects continuously through the years. We already know that the classroom diversity related to the students’ country of origin adds to the educational experience. Now we are adding to that working with students with different academic focuses. Integrative projects also have students working with people who have different academic focuses. In the corporate world, multidisciplinary teams are the norm, so the students are learning skills seen as valuable by future employers. Further, many research universities have a singular research focus at the expense of applied knowledge. The integrative programs provide that applied knowledge component that is often missing.

Support for Students

Students at UCG have a lot of support. Students are assigned a faculty advisor who works with them for the entire 3 years.  The advisors and professors and even the dean serves as an advisor. The advisor helps with course planning, academic struggles, internships, and preparing for future plans.  The dean explained to me that they believe that there is an implied contract between the students and professors to complete the program in three years and faculty is committed to helping students achieve this. The close relationship between students and faculty serves as a personal support as well.  I was told about a regular Dungeons and Dragons night that a group of students and professors participate in!

One of the benefits of attending a university college is that you have the benefits of a small school experience, but also the resources of a large university.  Students at UCG can join any of the clubs of the University of Groningen and also have their own student association just for UCG students, called Caerus. This group arranges social and academic activities including parties (lots of parties), dinners,  and workshops. You can get an idea for some of the things they do on their Facebook page

Any Drawbacks?

If you are a Beyond the States member, you probably know that I look to find and report the challenges or drawbacks of the schools I visit as well.  I had trouble finding many weaknesses here. The ones I did find were pretty small in significance.  For instance, some of the other university colleges have more architecturally impressive buildings. The building at UCG is well maintained and has some wonderful features, but not to the level of some of the other schools.  That said, a new building is being built near the square and is anticipated to be complete by 2020.

The main problem is that the overall admissions department for the university is quite rigid in their interpretation of the admissions requirements set by Nuffic (the Dutch government).  American students who don’t have an IB diploma are required to have 4 AP scores of 3+ to be admitted to a Dutch research university. Nuffic allows schools to determine whether they allow substitutes for the AP tests with things like college courses.  Some schools also have a math requirement that can be met through an AP test, an ACT or SAT math score, or a math entrance exam.  Groningen University College does not allow for any of these substitutions and the math requirement must be met through an AP score. This is something that I hope they will have more flexibility around in the future, but for now, it is what it is. Please note that the University of Groningen does not have the same math requirement as the university college. The positive side of this is that the admissions requirements are totally transparent so if you don’t have the qualifications, I don’t advise applying.  I met with the Admissions Director of the UCG program and you can find more about the admissions process in this video interview.


Would You Like to Learn More?

UCG has some great ways to explore the program from afar. First off, their website has some really good videos that speak to students about their majors.  There’s a Day in the Life video here. They also have a virtual student for a day program where you can choose from options like webinars, talking to a current student, a Q&A about an academic program, and attending a lecture – all from the comfort of your own home!

UCG charges 12,000 Euros per year (convert to $) and is a three-year program.  Check out our cost comparison of another student we worked with who is studying at a comparably priced university college program in the Netherlands. Non-EU first-year students can apply for the 5,000 Euro Holland scholarship for their first year of study.