A Typical Week at UCU

Above is my class timetable for this semester. Now, from this you would think that I would have quite a bit of free time, but from reading my posts you would know that the work load at UCU is actually quite high. In this post I will explain how the academic system works at University College Utrecht.

First a bit of history. UCU is actually a very different university from most other Dutch universities because it is a university college (or honours college). Utrecht University was the first to create one in order to try to tackle the “6 mentality” that exists in the Netherlands. “6 mentality” is a result of the overall Dutch education system. Students at school are given grades on a scale from 1-10 where 6 is a pass.  It is then a right in the Netherlands that everyone should have access to higher education and the grade needed to enter to a place at any university is a 6. Hence if you are in secondary school why would you bother working hard to get an 8 when you don’t need to?

University College tries to prevent this by having interviews and getting perspective students to write motivation letters, something that isn’t compulsory. The college can only take about 700 students and so if you want to go to this prestigious university then you have to show motivation for doing so. This can mean getting higher than a 6 on your exams but also can mean motivation in other ways such as commitment to causes outside of school such as sports teams or volunteering. This part is similar to our system as when you choose your five best universities they all receive a motivation letter from you. However for University College you can tailor it to them whereas for us you cannot as all five establishments receive the same letter.

So in 1998 UCU was born. Whilst addressing the “6 mentality” the college also brought other differences between it and main stream universities. These are;

  • The liberal arts and sciences approach. This is the approach they have in America which is different to our own. Courses are split into three; humanities, social sciences and sciences. Graduates graduate with a BSc or BA in Liberal arts and Sciences with a major in one of these areas. This means they get a much broader education than the main stream as within humanities you can study history but also literature too. To graduate you need 10 courses in your chosen area (e.g. social science) which includes two tracks – that is a level 100, 200 and 300 (equivalent to 1st, 2nd and 3rd year difficulty) – in two subjects, as above this would be history and literature. With this 10 course rule it means students can still study around their area and do not have to take all 10 in their two tracks. Furthermore there is a breadth requirement to take one course in all three areas. So with the tracks and breadth UCU is trying to give students wide knowledge as well as detailed knowledge of academic disciplines.
  • All courses will be taught in English. This gives all students an edge and prepares them better for working life in an English dominated world.
  • Students also have to take a language requirement where they must reach “Level 100 Proficiency”. Again this gives them better employability and more breadth in their knowledge.
  • All students will live on the one campus. University College Utrecht is actually the only university in the whole of the Netherlands to have a campus, a concept we are very used to in the UK. This creates greater community amongst the students. Added to this is the fact that everyone on campus is catered for in Dining Hall which provides three meals a day on weekdays and brunch and dinner at the weekend.
  • To be an international college. The aim of the university is to have only 60% of their undergraduates as Dutch nationals and the rest as international. This again gives the students breadth in knowledge and culture, and encourages the use of English throughout campus.
  • Class size will be at a maximum of 28. This allows all students to get the best out of their teachers and the learning experience. It allows for more discussion amongst students and to get direct feedback on points from the teacher. To make this system work efficiently 10% of every grade for a course is given to participation in class which encourages students to get the most from their small class size. It also means more diversity can be made in teaching and examination methods such as;
    • discussions,
    • debates,
    • presentations,
    • examinations,
    • orals etc.
  • Assessed presentations were something that I had never done at university before and so this was a whole new experience for me. It was very scary as I am not the best public speaker as my voice is very soft, but with the amount of them you have to do at UCU you get used to it and hopefully at the end I will be OK with it. It will be a good skill to leave with and will be useful later (especially when I have to give my presentation about my year abroad next year).

This is the overall philosophy and ethos of the University College and will help in my example of a week attending this establishment. The example I am going to give is of week 6, October 1st to October 7th.

Weekend: Over the weekend most people go home and so most of the time it was Klementina, Zeynep and I left in our group of friends. However there wasn’t much time for socialising as at UCU they use constant assessment to determine your overall grade for the course. Hence, for the weekend of the Oct 1st, I had to write and check over Assignment 2 for Social Psychology – which was a 500-word literature review of three articles. This would’ve took some time to complete. I also needed to read chapter 14 (Integration I) of Mathematical Techniques for Mathematical Modelling and chapter  17 of Baltes for Lifespan Developmental Psychology, ready for Monday. Both books are quite dull and Baltes was especially hard to read so this also took up a lot of time. On these days I would generally wake up at 10am and head to Brunch at Dining Hall with Klementina and whoever else was around at 12pm. We would then leave at about 1pm, and would spend the rest of the day studying – except for brief interludes, most likely asking how each other’s work loads were going and complaining about our own.

Monday: I like to have a lie in until 10am unless I had more work to do, in which case I would wake up earlier to do it. I would then head to lunch at just before 12.45, to avoid the rush of people who had just finished class and meet everyone there. Then it would be time to go to my first class of mathematical modelling with Myrte, and then quickly switch my brain from maths mode to psychology mode (a hard task to do even when I should be used to it). Then it would be dinner time where we would all meet up again at a table and have a chat before the evening. On Monday evening people generally have a panic about how little work they have done over the weekend. This means that even though we often would have liked to have a movie night or something on this day in reality hardly anyone is available. This evening I would have to read chapter 5 of my linguistic book about syntax. These chapters were very long at about 50 pages each so, as I make notes whilst I read, this would have taken all evening at least.

Tuesday: I wake up at 7am have a shower, go to breakfast and am ready for linguistics at 9am. At 10.45am I am done for the day. I quite like having early classes like this as you feel you still have all the day ahead of you – unlike on Monday where once I get up it is very busy. Everyone had the afternoon off on Tuesday so that if any course wants to do an excursion they can, or if a committee wants to run an event there is a good time to do it. We have a similar idea in Exeter where students have Wednesday afternoon off for sports. I, however, had a horrible Thursday coming up which I needed to prepare for – not to mention readings. I had to read Chapter 15 for mathematical modelling and then revise the previous week’s chapters for a test on Thursday, though I would do this on Wednesday evening so it was fresh in my memory. I also have to read chapter 13 on workspace for lifespan developmental psychology as well as had the introduction for the paper we would write next term finished. This paper involves working with a group so I also had a meeting with them to discuss it all and check over what we had written. Furthermore I also had to do Assignment 5 for linguistics (we got an assignment every week). Looks like I would not be going to the Tuesday party at the bar this evening!

Wednesday: I woke up early and read through all the things I had to hand in. After lunch and class at 13.45 I would read the chapter for lifespan developmental psychology and in the evening revise mathematical modelling for the test 5 (we had a test every week for this too).

Thursday: This is a long day and I was very happy when all 3 of my classes were done at 15.45. Six hours of classes in one day is quite a lot. However the work was not over as I have to read chapter 7 of the social psychology book, for the next day, about attitudes. This book is quite nice to read but the chapters are again long at about 30 pages and with me making notes it takes 2-3 hours. I also have to start thinking about which research project I want to do for this course next term as I have to give my choice in the next week. Every Thursday is the big party night and I make it to this one because my friends and I are keen to go, and in the end a few of us make it to the bar.

Friday: I go to my social psychology class at 11am and when that is over I look at all the work I have to do for the next week – mostly it is revision as the next week is mid-terms. I would have two exams next Thursday and one on Friday so I will have to start revising for them. However I will still have chapters to read for linguistics and for the classes at the beginning of the week. Work, work, work!

I hope this demonstrates why in other posts I am always complaining about work load, as it is crazy. The system in Exeter is very different as Exeter is less about constant assessment. For my psychology modules per term I have to write one essay worth 50% and do an exam the next term for 50%. For mathematics modules I do two or three assignments which consist of a sheet or two of maths problems. These together form 20% of my grade with the exam in the next term being worth 80%. At UCU there are lots of little things you have to do all the time and each only counts for a small percentage of your grade, and overtime these little percentages add up – so if you do badly in one you can make up for it but, if you do badly in a few it can really damage your overall grade.

UCU also has the philosophy of active learning which they describe as meaning that the lessons are supporting your learning whereas in Exeter, at least in mathematics and psychology anyway, the lectures are the only learning that you get. The lecture is what you learn and what you are tested on. UCU is focused on books and readings whilst Exeter is focused on the lectures as the primary source for learning. Many UCUers are shocked when I say there are no course books for the modules I took at Exeter and especially that I don’t have to read for them. There are recommended readings and you do have to read an article or two for a psychology tutorial but it is far from being compulsory. In the lifespan developmental class there will be questions on the exam that you will only know if you have read Baltes as this book is never discussed in class. This would never be the case at Exeter.

The UCU constant assessment system is better from the university’s point of view as it shows you those people who actually are good at the subject and not those who are good at exams, which can happen at Exeter. However I feel UCU takes this to the extreme and I don’t think the teachers really realise how much work everyone has to do – they just think that a few more hours dedicated to their course on some readings would not be that much, but it really is. University isn’t all about academics and even if you go to the most prestigious university in the country (as UCU is) you still want time to be able to have fun and not stressing about how much work you have to do if you spend one night with your friends.