Organisation - August 16, 2012

Excellence first?

Many Dutch universities have introduced what they call an honours programme for excellent students. Wageningen University wants to launch one next year. Good idea?

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Aart Claassens
Member of the Student Council
'The student council has been in favour of an honours programme ever since 2008, so we think it's great that it is coming now. Students are a very mixed bunch and they should all be challenged. The university has long said that it did not want an honours programme as Wageningen course are already of a good standard and small-scale. But we see it as an extra for students who find their programme too easy at the moment. Our only condition is that the teaching of average students should not suffer as a result.'
Marieke van der Heiden
Fifth year Food Safety
'This is the first time I have heard of this programme, but it strikes me as a good idea. Certainly if people are getting bored in their first year. It is good for them to be able to go deeper if they feel the need for that. But it should not work so that teachers start seeing them as 'better' and paying more attention to them. Nor should they become a separate clique within your programme - I think that would be annoying. It wouldn't be my thing. During my bachelor's degree, and especially in my first, year, I wasn't interested in being a high achiever at all.'
Pim Brascamp
Until last June, director of the Education Institute (OWI) at the university:
'I have never been in favour of an honours programme for super-smart students. It is more important for us to focus on the majority of the students. We should offer all the students a challenge with degree programmes that call on their capacities. There is a lot of scepticism about educational standards, especially in government circles. The call for continuous quality control and the wish for accreditation and quality labels is all part of that. The monitors do not ask whether standards are fine or how things can be improved, but whether they meet minimum requirements. Logically the government will therefore start assuming that the average student isn't good enough.  Hence the focus on excellence.
In my view all this monitoring and proving that education is 'good enough' gets in the way of real quality improvements. Universities should concentrate on the students, not on the bureaucracy of good education.'
Peter de Ruiter
Coordinator of the ESG's excellence programme that serves as a pilot for the honours programme.
'I definitely support the idea. Some students are looking for more depth and we can offer them that. The name could sound a bit pretentious, but it is a nice, refreshing programme for very normal students who want more depth and breadth in the content of their studies. It is not about nerds who want to plumb the depths in solitude. A key question is: are there enough students who want this? In the ESG the numbers have been disappointing so far. Seven started the programme in the first year and for next year there are even fewer. If you run a programme like this university-wide, it will go better, I imagine.
We do select strictly. It is important that you are not behind schedule with your studies at all, and that you can cope with this on top of your normal course load. It is also important that the students make the decision themselves, so that they will drop out less easily. It should be something you enjoy doing. I think it is good to focus both on added depth and on an interdisciplinary approach. And that fits best in Wageningen. So my advice is: Wageningen-wide, low profile, start small and above all... make it fun.
Jordy Stokhof De Jong (26)
Master's student, Landscape Architecture
'It seems to me a good idea to offer students who can handle it something extra. It is of course a unique opportunity to show your colours. I do think it is important that a programme of this kind has real added value and that students are well informed about the demands it makes of you. First- year students are often still finding their way and they have yet to discover what their passions will be. So it seems sensible to me to make the programme flexible so that students can drop out easily if it turns out not to suit them. An honours programme would not have appealed to me. My bachelor's was quite intensive already, and I really needed my evenings.'
Bart Driessen
Third year, flexible bachelor's programme, on the ESG's excellence programme
'If you pass all your courses with good grades without spending much time on them, you soon start to think that even if you do nothing you will get a six or a seven. That way you end up doing nothing at all. I wanted more of a challenge, but I am also participating because I wanted to learn things that are not part of my degree programme. And this gives me more chance of getting into the university where I would like to do my Master's.
The nice thing about this programme is that you gain a number of skills that you don't pick up through following extra courses. For example, you learn to conduct meetings, to plan, to work in groups, to set up studies and conduct interviews. You can also do projects on subjects that are not directly related to your programme. For example, we have read a book about the rise of successful societies and one about the formation of the universe. It may seem irrelevant and yet you learn a lot of things that can also have an influence on your thinking in your own field.
I thought the programme would be very tightly run but right from day one it was: here is your group, get on with it. That was difficult to start with, but it enables you to choose something that really interests you instead of assignments thought up for you by someone else.' 

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