Organisation - May 26, 2010

Are there too many degree courses?

National student body ISO has appealed this year for sub-standard degree courses to be closed down. And the Veerman Commission on Higher Education wants degrees to have a clearer profile. Is there too much of the same in higher education?

Field practicum
Edwin Kroese, Study advisor and programme director Economics and Policy (WU)
‘I do think there are an awful lot of business studies and economics applied sciences degrees. There are about thirty similar courses available in both those subjects. Perhaps some cuts could be made there. But I don't know enough about it to be able to judge that. The range of Master's degrees on offer is big too, with vast differences in student numbers. As long as a programme contributes something to society - and there is no great overlap - I don't think it's a problem.
‘In Economics and Policy we have a little niche course focusing on Wageningen UR's domains. The visitation committee thinks that we have great added value on this scale, with about 35 students, and other Life Science universities are keen to work with us. Take our professor, Erwin Bulte. According to the Economic Statistic Bulletins, he is one of the top three Dutch economists. We are good in our own field, and you shouldn't aim for more than that. There are themes, like the euro and Greece for example, on which we don't have any expertise.'
Evert-Jan Ulrich, Programme director of subjects including Food Technology (HAS Den Bosch)
‘Our two food programmes are really taking off, and graduates are doing well on the job market too. Food technology has an intake of over fifty and food design takes about eighty students a year. Enough to run a good course.
‘We concentrate on the market in the South. We are not bothered by competition from other agricultural applied sciences schools or from the food programmes at Wageningen University. I don't think there's a problem of too much of the same in the green education sector. Courses are adapted to local circumstances. You notice at the moment that other people are getting in on the nutrition market. I don't see a problem with that, though I do think you need a critical mass. If a course gets less than fifteen students, you should forget it.'
Dick Vreugdenhil, Chairman of the Biology programme committee and until 1 April programme director for Biology (WU)
‘If there are not many potential teachers, you can't offer a good course. I find it hard to judge whether you can now study biology at too many places, or what the minimum number of students should be. I think as far as Bachelor's degree courses go, we have a nice number in the Netherlands, but there are rather a lot of Master's course springing up. At some universities there are six different MScs, all to do with biology in some way. There is often not much difference between these courses. I would rather see different specializations within one MSc. At Wageningen University there are around thirty MScs. We should take a critical look at that. Too much fragmentation isn't good. The quality of universities lies in their breadth. Of course it's good to have differences in emphasis, but that shouldn't happen at the expense of a broad basic range of courses.'
Jan van der Valk, Programme director of courses on subjects including business studies, agribusiness, horticulture, arable farming, animal management and livestock (VHL Leeuwarden)
‘Green applied sciences courses are different enough from each other and they prepare people for a clear professional profile. That is true of both our longstanding and our new courses. It's a different story in non-agricultural education. There has been an explosive growth in economics degree courses. There used to be business economics, full stop. Now there are courses like international business & languages, international business and management studies, and management, economics and law. The difference between many of these courses remains unclear.
‘We hardly have any competition from other agricultural schools and Wageningen University in food technology, for example. We get very few VWO students and HAVO students look for a course close to home. We do notice that the more traditional applied sciences schools are starting to enter our market. That is frustration because we have more know-how in these areas, but we are less well-known to High School students. I would prefer to see us being funded on the basis of quality and relevance, but there is very little scope for that at the moment. At present, students from other Applied Sciences schools can take a Minor with us, but that doesn't bring in any money.'
Geartsje Oosterhof, Course director of all courses at VHL Wageningen
‘What is on offer for international students is limited, and what is more, they are usually looking for something specific. There are more than enough Dutch language applied science courses. For many Dutch High School students that doesn't make it any easier. So the HAVO graduates use a filter: what is nearby, and is it something I am familiar with from secondary school? Students aiming for vocational higher education usually know what they want, but they go for local schools. So small and unknown institutions such as VHL don't get on the potential students' shortlists. A great pity, because it is exactly people with these courses that we need more of on the labour market.
‘VHL Wageningen has seven English-language courses; a good number, if you ask me. We could perhaps cut down on the number of specialisms offered at VHL. I don't think it's a problem to have courses with a small intake, though. In the accreditation round and in the recent course guide, these courses scored high. Food technology, for example, is our smallest, but our highest-scoring course.'
Daan van Soest, Professor of environmental economics (VU University Amsterdam and University of Tilburg)
‘In the nineteen nineties a lot of new courses sprang up in higher education, all with fancy names. And it wasn't very clear how these courses differed from existing ones. That is an undesirable situation for both prospective students and employers. Economics is a broad subject area, so it is not bad that there are a number of courses in it. To make it easier for High School students to choose, Bachelor's courses should be broad, while Master's courses can be specialized.
‘Compared with economics faculties such as those as Tilburg, VU, Erasmus and the UvA, economics is quite small at Wageningen. But with their focus on agriculture, environment and development, they've got a specific niche that is unique in the Netherlands. There are other small courses that are less unique. In that respect, other economics programmes, the one at Nijmegen for example, are less viable than Wageningen's.'

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