University Colleges: Liberal Arts Colleges in the Netherlands

By Celeste Moreno Palmero Ph.D.

The first university college in the Netherlands was established in Utrecht in 1998. Since then, many important research universities have implemented these honors colleges. Their goal is to provide programs inspired by the philosophy of the US Liberal Arts education. This approach is rather innovative considering the educational systems that we traditionally find in Europe, yet it is becoming more and more popular and last year UC Utrecht received 1,000 applications for only 250 spots.

The appeal and advantages of such programs is undeniable. Much like their small liberal arts college counterparts in the States, students at the Dutch University Colleges live on campus and benefit from a very particular type of curriculum both academically and extracurricularly. Courses span the spectrum of the Arts, Sciences, Humanities, and Social Sciences. More importantly, and unlike on US campuses, where international students are generally a minority, the Dutch UCs prioritize creating a multicultural, international community in which English is the language of instruction.

And while these institutions tend to be small, they offer the advantage of belonging to larger research universities that grant them access to all the facilities and resources one might find in a larger school, while enjoying sufficient independence to admit their own distinct pool of candidates and forge their own curricula and personalities. Many of these institutions are located in the same cities as the universities of which they are part, such as Amsterdam University College or University College Groningen, while a few are in different locations, such as Leiden University, whose UC is located in The Hague.

Although all of the UCs are based on the same idea of a liberal arts education, each has its own approach, and choosing one over the other is just a matter of finding the right fit. Here a brief description of each with an outline of their programs and particularities:

  1. Amsterdam University College. Located within the main campus of the University of Amsterdam, in the southern part of the city, this college has about 900 students (300 per year) with fields of study within the Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities. The entire liberal arts curriculum at AUC revolves around six themes: Energy, Climate and Sustainability; Life, Evolution, Universe; Health and Well-being; Information, Communication, Cognition; Social Systems; Cities and Cultures. In their first year, students pick a theme that will ultimately become the guiding principle behind their course of study. AUC is structured according to a tutoring system, which allows students to establish and maintain an individual connection with a member of the AUC teaching community. In addition, all students at AUC are expected to be part of at least one Community Project or Internship, the goal being to grant students the ability to develop their professional and interpersonal skills through real-world experiences.
  2. Erasmus University College. Located in Rotterdam, a 20-minute tram ride from the Erasmus University main campus, EUC enjoys the atmosphere of a bustling city, but with relative independence from the main campus. Their extracurricular program includes: engaged citizens programs, language learning, and students associations. Students are required to live on campus the first year, which—given the housing crisis in the Netherlands—is a real blessing. After that, however, students must find their own accommodations, which is much easier after a year of getting to know the city. EUC offers a multidisciplinary education in which students are encouraged to choose among a wide variety of majors from different interconnected fields (philosophy, economics, politics, humanities, sustainability, business, cultural studies, neuroscience, biomedicine or public health) in combination with a minor, which makes their degrees completely unique and tailored to their own interests and motivations. EUC defines their learning environment as “small-scale, interactive and intensive.” Small groups of 12-15 students will work with a tutor to guide them through a remarkably independent and self-directed learning process. Indeed, the learning experience at EUC is often flipped, with students asked by their tutors to develop the guiding questions that will allow them to work toward the most comprehensive understanding of the subject at hand. And if you are an artist and willing to pursue a career in the arts, EUC offers the unique opportunity to earn a Dual Degree with Arts in five years in which you study both the theoretical and the applied sides of your art form (for example, you might study Popular Music Culture from an anthropological perspective and Performance).
  3. University College Fryslan (University of Groningen). Located in Leeuwarden in one of the satellite campuses of the University of Groningen, this University College focuses on one degree: Global Responsibility and Leadership, which it approaches through the interdisciplinary study of Political Science, Behavioral Economics, Global Health, Earth and Environment, Psychology or Data Science. Students can opt to orient their degree based on three different areas of focus: Responsible Planet (with tracks in Environment or Energy), Responsible Humanity (with tracks in Psychology or Global Health), and Responsible Governance (with tracks in Business or Economics). UCF is unique in its approach to the Liberal Arts education and organizes its academic curriculum around the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development. As with the other UCs, first-year students are expected to live on campus, where they have the opportunity to engage in a diverse array of extracurricular activities, such as their open mic or debate club.
  4. University College Groningen. More in line with the philosophy of the Liberal Arts than its little sister in Fryslan, UCG offers a Bachelor’s degree in the Liberal Arts and Sciences with the idea of letting students create their own paths and identities. UCG is located in the quaint college town of Groningen, the largest city in the north of the Netherlands. UCG offers four majors: Sciences (with specializations in Health and Life Sciences; Smart Technologies; or Mind, Machines and Morality), Social Sciences (with specializations in Mind and Behavior; Philosophy, Politics and Economics; International Relations & International law; or International Business & Entrepreneurship) Humanities (with specializations in Social and Cultural Change or Truth, Meaning and Rationality), and finally, a Free Major in which students can create their own programs. At UCG students are part of a vibrant, multicultural community, and if you are international you can opt to spend your first year living in Frascati International Student Housing.
  5. Leiden University College The Hague. Although part of the larger research university with its main campus in Leiden (a short train ride away), this college is located in The Hague, a dynamic city famously known for hosting the International Court of Justice. Less than an hour away from Amsterdam by train, and 30 minutes from Rotterdam, LUC’s location right next to The Hague Central train station is ideal for anyone who wants a great education in a great city (with a beach!) and easy access to travel. LUC’s curriculum, while based on the liberal arts like its counterparts, has a distinctly social justice bent (which makes sense considering the institution’s motto, “Building Knowledge for a Better World” and its strategic location in The Hague). Indeed all LUC students study in a program addressing Global Challenges while focusing on one of six areas of specialization (or majors): Culture, History, and Society; International Justice; World Politics; Earth, Energy and Sustainability; Global Public Health; Governance, Economics and Development. Unlike other University Colleges, students live on campus during their first and second year, which allows them to create a close-knit community in a neighborhood that hosts the International Criminal Court, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Royal Conservatory.
  6. University College Maastricht. With an innovative problem-based approach to learning, this University College is probably the most unique of all, allowing students to build their own curriculum within three main concentrations: Social Sciences, Humanities, and Sciences; and with more of 150 courses to choose from. The curriculum is organized around six blocs: Core Courses (such as Contemporary World History or Policial Philosophy), Concentration (with subject highly specialized in the field of study), Skills (with more hands-on labs such as Genetics or Gaining Racial Literacy), Projects (in which students carry out more in-depth/practical studies), and Capstone (the equivalent to a senior thesis). Like other University Colleges, UCM enrolls only 250-275 students per year and has its own campus in a cozy, beautiful building in the center of Maastricht.
  7. University College Roosevelt. This University College named after the Roosevelt family is part of the University of Utrecht, yet probably the only institution to boast the flavor of a rural US liberal arts college. Located in the charming little town of Middelburg, UCR allows you to combine courses from Arts and Humanities, Engineering, Science, and Social Sciences, to create your own personalized career path that consists of a core share of required courses, such as Introductory Methods & Statistics or Introductory Academic Writing & Presenting, a Senior Project and up to 12 courses within the major of your choice. With more than 200 courses to choose from, UCR offers the opportunity to pursue a degree as unique as you. With guaranteed housing for all its students during the first two years of study, the goal at UCR is to create a solid academic and social community around a set of shared core values.
  8. University College Tilburg. Located in the city of Tilburg, the seventh largest city in the country, this University college is, perhaps, the one most attached to its parent university. With no distinct campus, studying liberal arts at UCT is more similar to a large university experience, with access to great facilities and a lot of extracurricular activities. Yet the academic offering makes UCT a great destination given the variety of choices within its program. During the first year, all students take core courses, and it is only during the second and third years that they specialize in one of these five majors: Business and Economics, Law in an International Context, Social Sciences: Human Behavior, Arts and Humanities: Past – Present – Future, Cognitive Neuroscience: Brain and Cognition.
  9. University College Twente. If you want to have an impact on society, while imagining responsible and creative solutions to today’s most pressing problems, this is your place. UCT offers an innovative Bachelors’ degree in Technology and Liberal Arts and Sciences (ATLAS) that allows students to delve into the study of the liberal arts while still taking into account the critical role of technology in society. The goal of UCT’s program is to turn students into “multi-skilled, open-minded, innovative and tech-savvy problem-solvers.” During its three-year program, students explore blocs from different academic perspectives in what they hail as “not your regular bachelors’ program”. Thus, during the first two semesters students cover two main concepts (through elective and compulsory courses): Humans and Movement and Sustainable Systems. The third semester is devoted to Living Under Extreme Conditions, and the fourth to Wicked Problems. During the final year, students craft their own paths choosing their courses and projects. UCT offers accommodation for all first years students in their own dorm: the Drienerburght, a modern facility in the heart of campus.
  10. University College Utrecht. A unique college experience in which students live on campus (all first- and second-year, and most third-year students) and take part in a wide array of cultural and social activities, UCU proposes a traditional liberal arts experience in the heart of a thriving city: Utrecht. As with many other university colleges, multidisciplinarity is central. However, their academic offering is rather unique. While choosing from a large pool of courses and academic disciplines, UCU arranges each of the three years around a different focus: explore, expand your knowledge, and focus on thesis. With more than 20 disciplines, students can create their own paths studying Performance, Cognitive Neuroscience, or Economy. They can even link different disciplines assembling a study program by combining courses from at least two of these disciplines: Humanities, Social Sciences, and Science.

In short, the Dutch University Colleges are an outstanding choice for students who want to transcend the walls of a US education while maintaining the core spirit of the Liberal Arts. Add to the mix their affordable tuitions, the European charm, and of course, a bicycle, and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime and a degree that gives you access to the entire world!