Looking back: a post I wrote on June 3 2011 (improved Nov 2012) - Living in Maastricht

Maastricht is somewhat of an enigma.

Maastricht: a mixed-up city.

Firstly: Maastricht is not really an inherently 'Dutch' city, it's walls echo the taint of history and past-battle-lines. The tourist-ridden Maastricht has a distinctly European feel, with splashes of belgium, germany and france. Old architecture, 'chocolate box' houses and cobbled streets are paired with the new and industrial, making Maastricht a truly contradictory place to be.

There seem to be many sub-sections to Maastricht society. There are the working-class 'real people' of Maastricht, living in slightly the less historic and beautiful out-skirts of Maastricht. They often work in the shops, cafes and bars in the centre. There are those in Maastricht only for business. Suited Dutch men from the north that have found a niche in Maastricht and hold business meetings and important gatherings in the many cafes and bars that the town has to offer, yet not really integrated into the city. There are the extremely rich old retired couples, that parade around the city in designer clothes with a miniature dog peeking out of their designer handbags. There are the students (almost none of which actually come from Maastricht) and the varying social sub-sections along nationality, social-class or academic lines.

There is certainly a real divide between 'Town and Gown', in other words, the real working town of Maastricht, and those in Maastricht for studying or other university-related purposes. The students living in Maastricht benefit from a strong historical and cultural vibe and the ease of cycling (in such a small place) from university, to shopping, to the cinema, to the cafes and so on. However, the age-old problem of Town vs Gown is still not overcome (as seen in many old universities such as Oxford and Cambridge) this division, as well as being a class-divide is also partially due to the truly international make-up of the student body living in Maastricht, where it creates - to some extent - a lack of integration. 

Language being a strong component in this. Many of Maastricht University's International Students come from neighbouring Belgium or Germany. Therefore the mix of French, Flemmish, German and English (as well as Dutch) spoken amongst the students differs greatly from the locals, where - amongst themselves - they mainly speak only Dutch (English to tourists) and often use, the practically incomprehensible to foreigners: local Limburg dialect. Even amongst the Dutch students studying in Maastricht, even they are not really at home - as Maastricht is not a very 'Dutch' city and only a small proportion of the Dutch students studying in Maastricht, are actually from Maastricht.

The University: 
confident students, with a new (and sometimes confusing) way of learning

Problem Based Learning (PBL) 

Secondly: Maastricht University is (so I'm told) one of the only universities to incorporate PBL (Problem Based Learning) system into all departments. This means that students must approach their learning in an independent, confident and well-articulated way.

First we are given a 'problem' which we discuss in small groups and come up with some ideas of the sorts of things that we wish to discover while studying this 'problem'. This is guided by the tutor who knows the content of the course and therefore makes sure that all topics are covered that must be covered in order to pass the course. The tutor in some cases is practically silent, where they merely interject when the students are in entirely the wrong direction - and in others the tutor talks for a large proportion of the time. This depends greatly on the teaching style of each tutor and the most appropriate way of learning for each course. 

There is also a different 'discussion leader' appointed each class. This is one of the students that must chair and steer the meeting. Often this student has done far more in-depth research into the matter that they are 'discussion leading'. 

After the problem is discussed, we group our thoughts on a white board by a secretary. This is called 'clustering' and is, in reality, often left out. 

After the ideas are 'clustered' we come up with Learning Goals or LGs, which are a set of usually around 5 questions that we wish to answer during our reading and lectures. 

After this tutorial we read the readings, attend the lectures, maybe do some extra research and then return to the second tutorial (or post-discussion) later in the week. In this session we discuss what we learnt, clarify it and begin the next 'problem'.

This approach is for the most part a good learning experience, although - for such a cutting edge learning system - there doesn't seem to be many of constant improvements. Feedback from the students would be extremely useful and although we get to give feedback on each individual course, I think that it would be excellent if we could give feedback on our actual learning process.

That aside, PBL is new, strange and different, and to an outsider may make no sense.

University College Maastricht (UCM) - a faculty within Maastricht University, but separate.

(confused, competitive & high achieving students)

Thirdly: UCM is the 'odd' faculty at MaastrichtUniversity. Where we can choose to take almost any subject that we wish to take and most students are Internationally oriented and many have a very liberal outlook. By that I mean: UCM has the reputation for having the students that want to 'save the world'.

You study a 3 year programme called 'Liberal Arts and Sciences', fully taught in English (although many students take 4 years to complete the programme), where many students go on to study masters at some of the most prestigious universities in the world. 

Within the Netherlands, the University Colleges are quite elite and are amongst the only University programmes that insist on a strict selection process, involving an interview. (The Dutch University system works differently than the UK and is generally very egalitarian - will write about this later). 

The course is intense and alot of work, students generally have 5 tutorials a week (10 hours) and 2 - 3 lectures a week (4 - 6 hours). On top of that you are expected to cover alot of reading material in a short time. Due to the fact that you are doing so many different disciplines, they make you work for it.

UCM has it's own building and a gorgeous one at that. A converted church from the 1400s, it now has a beautiful wood and glass interior. Complete with a 'common room', computer rooms, "standing up computers" (for quickly checking your e-mail etc), a lecture hall (which is in what used to be the chapel) and all this centred around a beautiful court-yard.

UCM has 6 'periods' per year, and 2 semesters per year (so 3 periods per semester).

Each period is 7 weeks and the final week (the 7th) is exam week (as opposed to the other Maastricht University faculties that do their exams in the 8th week). We also have mid-term exams in week 3 or 4. So essentially we can end up with exams every 4 weeks.

Each 'period' (7 weeks) has 3 subjects, one of which must be a 'skill' subject (research methods [statistics], academic skills, a language, argumentation, lab skills, think tank, undergraduate research project etc). 

On top of this you must 'declare' your concentration (Humanities, Social Sciences, Sciences or an Integrated concentration of two of the aforementioned) by your 2nd year. 

Within your concentration you must take 4 introductory courses (or 1000 level), 8 intermediate or advanced courses (2000 or 3000) and 4 advanced courses (3000). Then you must take 2 courses in each of the other disciplines. For example if your concentration is Science then you must take two social science courses and two humanities courses over the course of the three years at UCM. 

Most students also take a semester abroad (places such as Berkeley - University of California, University of Sydney, Australian National University - Canberra, Sciences Po Toulouse/Lille being the most popular destinations).

This high work load and high concentration of highly motivated students leads - to a certain extent - to a slight divide within the university. Sometimes UCM students will look down on the other faculties as 'less broad', 'less well rounded', 'less pressured', 'less clever' - as well as other faculties sometimes seeing UCM as 'stuck-up hippies'. 

On top of all this is what you may call 'UCM syndrome'. This is the name that I like to give to the phenomenon of the highly motivated and 'doing-everything' UCM student.

Because of the very nature of UCM (a high workload course for highly motivated and intelligent students - which means many contact hours, you have to be good at talking knowledgeably on front of a group [PBL], often from an international background and often with a liberal world view) it breeds the 'SuperStudent'.

Many UCM students, as well as studying are also involved in a crazy amount of other activities. To name but a few: SIFE (a sustainability project), UNIVERSALIS (the UCM student study association), often the dutch students are part of a sorority or fraternity (eg. Tragos, Koko, Circumflex), or a sports association (Saurus), or involved in the the many UCM committees (party, charities etc), the other activities at UCM (choir, orchestra, debate, yearbook, magazine, arts and photo), organising a festival, student representation (either the council or board... or both), many students also have a job, or starting up a business, or an NGO or are in the United Netherlands Delegation, or are doing PEERS the undergraduate research project, many will also attend the gym as well as partying hard. 

This at once is a fantastic thing, being in an environment of such highly motivated (and often highly strung) people, but also at times intimidating. Excellence becomes the norm.

As UCM is the only University College in the Netherlands not to have a campus. Therefore students are sorting out their own food, rent, laundry etc as well as studying. 

Since UCM is international, the tuition language of English is often not the first language for many. This can sometimes create a situation where everyone is 'speaking' English, but not everyone is 'thinking' in English. This can lead to subtle communication issues or a feeling of distance/detachment from the discussion.

All of the above can lead to, what is more commonly known as 'UCM-breakdown'. Due to the high pressure that many students put on themselves and others, the high work-load can lead to people giving up, failing, dropping out, not sleeping - and all the time going to great lengths to cover up the fact that they may be struggling.

So as much as I love everything that UCM does, and how much I prefer this to the university education that I may have got elsewhere, it has it's pitfalls - and I wish that UCM had more student support.

UCM: divided within.
Of course with such a small community (less than 600 students), divisions form between the students - especially with so many languages, cultures and backgrounds.

However, generally most students are incredibly middle-class and that, I guess, is probably an inevitable aspect of university and tertiary education in general. The make-up of UCM is roughly 30% Dutch, 30% German, 30% students from other countries in Europe and 10% students from outside Europe

Within this, many languages are spoken, and therefore many sub-groups and sub-cultures form. As well as stereotypes. That said, I do really enjoy studying with different nationalities in UCM as there will be many different perspectives in one classroom (for example, my politics class was really interesting with Dutch, German, American, Finnish, British and Indian perspectives).

It still remains however, that UCM can be annoyingly full of middle and upper-class bureaucrats' children, 'champagne socialists' and 'rich hippies' - talking about changing the world and back-packing across Africa, whilst sitting on front of the latest AppleMac.

Heart It


Post a Comment


Follow by Email: