Science - January 29, 2009

EVERYONE IS INTERNATIONAL

Wageningen is the most international university in the Netherlands. Around one third of the students come from abroad and there are about a hundred different nationalities walking round the campus. But the internationalization process leaves a lot to be desired, say critical students. Too many activities are still conducted in Dutch, and by no means all the societies are international. Above all, Wageningen doesn’t ‘celebrate’ its diversity enough.

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Since 2007, Wageningen University has taken part in the International Student Barometer (ISB), a comparative survey of universities. The barometer shows that of the 93 participating universities, including many from Europe and the US, Wageningen is in seventh place for student satisfaction. And of the eleven Dutch universities, Wageningen comes top, scoring particularly high for the quality of its education, internet access, security and sport facilities. But of course there are always a few minus points as well. Some foreign students think the rents for accommodation are too high. Those who are keen to learn Dutch report that the language centre’s courses are always full. And Hongjuan Qu from China says she misses good cheap food. ‘It’s boring eating bread. You should be able to get a good meal on campus, as you can in Chinese universities.’ A French Erasmus student adds: ‘At home I could warm up my lunch in a microwave oven at the university. I can’t do that here.’ PhD student Rashid Kazmi from Pakistan misses the campus of his former university in Brighton, England. ‘It’s got everything: Shops, bars, cafés. There’s not enough to do in Wageningen. But perhaps I just don’t know where to go.’ Dan Li had the same problem. She’s in her third year now, and she found it pretty boring for the first two years. Now she knows her way around and understands the culture a bit better, that’s changed. ‘I go to more parties and I do some sport. At first I though the sports facilities were only for Dutch students.’ DUTCH CLUBS The lack of night life and affordable events in Wageningen is a frequently voiced complaint among foreign students. Wrongly, thinks Edwin Zea Escamilla, a Columbian student who was on the Student Council last year. Before that, he was actively involved in the International Student Organization Wageningen (ISOW), which throws parties and runs courses in English which are free to members. Membership only costs a tenner a year. ‘But often only two or three people come to events. The problem is that people don’t keep informed.’ He thinks few people really read the many posters and flyers on the noticeboards in the Forum. A couple of weeks ago, the university hosted a free New Year dinner for foreign students. Less that one fifth of those invited showed up. It’s up to the students themselves, is Zea Escamilla’s message. ‘Wageningen University gives a lot of support to student organizations and events. What’s more, it was the first to have foreign students on the Student Council, where the official language is English. That shows that the university takes its student population seriously.’ Nevertheless, internationalization hasn’t reached all corners of the university. The traditional student associations tend to be geared to local students. And the same goes for most study associations. Tendayi Nyamagure from Zimbabwe was on the board of Aktief Slip for a year. ‘It was dying out, so a couple of other foreign first years and I got on the board. But as far as I know, it's one of the few English language study associations.’ It was an important experience for Tendayi. ‘When you work together you learn a lot from each other. About food, for example, because board members invite each other for dinner. And about the importance of time management. I have really learned to keep an eye on the time.’ But this year the board of Aktief Slip is an all-Dutch affair. A pity, thinks Nyamugure. ‘International representation gives foreign students the feeling that they belong to the association too. The university promotes internationalization, but does not yet have systems for ensuring it happens. Install a quota system with a maximum number of Dutch students allowed on a board.’ CELEBRATING DIVERSITY Edwin Zea Escamilla goes further than that. For a lot of people, ‘international’ means foreigners, he says. They see a border which shouldn’t be there. It’s a mindset. If you’re a Dutch student, you can still be international. In my view, internationalization is the integration of different nationalities that are working together.’ He thinks this subtle change of mentality can only be brought about through well-targeted policy. ‘You need to define the concept of internationalization and establish targets and methods for achieving it.’ According to Ab Groen, policy director of Education and Research, this kind of integral approach is exactly what the university is developing. ‘We want to create that added value for both Dutch and foreign students. Everything, from recruit¬ment to working methods and all the related services, should be geared to this. Wageningen is ahead of the field, but there’s always room for improvement. The spirit of ‘celebrate diversity’ could be stronger.’ Above all, you want to prevent in-groups forming, says Groen. The ISB revealed that about half the Dutch students in Wageningen feel international. ‘We’ve still got a way to go in that respect’, says Groen. With this in mind, he is also happy with the education plan ‘Towards Flexibility’, which makes it easier for Dutch Bachelor's students to study abroad for a while or do an internship. Groen: ‘I studied in Norway for a while myself. It shows you that things can be done differently to the way you’re used to. Why do the Norwegians take their shoes off whenever they come into a house, for example?’ So thought is being given to internationalization at the university. ‘It is very important to us to know why students come and what their experiences are here,’ explains Delia de Vreeze, who is responsible for international recruitment. The International Student Barometer is a good way of measuring this. The university cannot do much about complaints about public transport or the lack of jobs for students. But it is doing something about other problems, such as dissatisfaction with the language centre and the catering. BREAK DOWN BARRIERS A year ago, the Executive Board set up a special ‘Team Intercultural Dialogue’. Liesbeth van de Linde, who works on educational policy, is on the team. ‘You have an ideal picture in your mind, but the reality is hard to change. Still, there's a lot more going on than just educating international students. There are increasingly far-reaching plans to break down the barriers. A lot has happened already, like the introduction of joint introduction days. That was unthinkable a couple of years ago.’ The team is looking at what needs to happen throughout the institution. ‘It’s quite a list. From the education itself, to reception on arrival, to English-speaking staff and bilingual signposts’, says Van der Linden. Rien Bor, from International recruitment, agrees. ‘We’ve got to go through the whole university with a fine-toothed comb and made sure everything, every signpost and instruction, is either in English or bilingual. The same goes for Resource.’ For his colleague Delia de Vreeze, the largely Dutch-language weekly is a constant source of irritation. ‘It’s a real pity that there is only a selection of the news on the English-language pages. Let foreign students choose for themselves what they want to read.’

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