Science - June 10, 2004

New admissions policy for foreign graduates

The recently published memorandum on Wageningen University’s admissions policy for the Master’s programmes has caused considerable commotion. Wb looks at the consequences of the new admissions policy for students with a foreign degree. An eight-point guide.

What will change in the admissions requirements?
Students with a foreign Bachelor’s degree will be admitted only if they need to do three or fewer courses to bring them up to the required level (bijspijkervakken). Three courses amount to a maximum of 13 study points or 18 ECTS.
Students at some colleges of professional education in the Netherlands will be able to follow preparatory courses before they graduate. This will not be possible for foreign students. Wageningen intends to make certain that foreign degree courses prepare students better for Wageningen through distance education.

Why are the new measures being introduced?
Wageningen wants to be among the top five universities for life sciences and natural resources.

How many foreign students enter Master’s programmes each year?
Over half (335) of the 650 students that started a Wageningen MSc in 2003 have a foreign first degree. The rest of the students from outside Wageningen were graduates of Dutch colleges of professional education.

Do foreign students score worse than their Dutch counterparts?
“They work harder and perform better,” according to Dr Rob Schipper, study coordinator for International Development Studies. According to a survey, however, foreign students score an average of 7.54 for their graduation thesis. This is 0.3 of a point lower than Dutch students who came directly from Dutch high schools, but there are no good statistical comparisons available. The study coordinators are generally satisfied though with ‘their’ foreign students. All of them admit that there is occasionally a student who is less capable than the admissions committee had expected. Raising the norm for ‘bijspijkervakken’ will not get round this problem.

What are ‘bijspijkervakken’?
These are courses that are not a standard part of MSc programmes, but are added to help students catch up on knowledge they have missed. These courses must be of a sufficiently high level. Wageningen courses are divided into three levels. In the memorandum it is proposed that the ‘bijspijkervakken’ must be of level two standard. The level system was introduced in 2000, and according to Dr Henny van Lanen, study coordinator for Hydrology and Water Quality, it needs revision: “The idea was that first year subjects were of level one, second year subjects of level two, and so on. But now there are level-two maths courses that are so difficult that almost nobody takes them. Nevertheless they are potential ‘bijspijkervakken’.”

How often are more than thirteen points’ worth of ‘bijspijkervakken’ built into the individual Master’s programmes?
Of the thirteen Master’s programmes that were asked this question, it emerged that five sometimes offer students the opportunity to catch up with courses worth more than thirteen points. Most courses only allow students to do more than three basic courses in extreme individual cases, for example if the admissions committee’s predictions turn out to be off the mark and the student’s scores are much lower than expected. A number of students use the internship time to catch up, as students with work experience are exempted from the internship requirement.

What do students need to catch up on?
It is often mathematics that is included in the programme. Shortcomings in technical subject knowledge are often filled in by taking courses from the relevant Bachelor’s programme. Not all students that need to catch up lack depth of knowledge however. According to Dr Rien Komen, chair of the education institute Social Sciences, many foreign students have good knowledge of their own discipline, but to go over to the theme-oriented programmes offered in Wageningen, such as development studies, these students sometimes take extra basic courses related to the core theme of their programme.

Are the new measures going to have the desired effect?
For most of the programmes the quality and quantity of Master’s entrants with a foreign degree will not change. It is not the case at present that all Master’s students are required to take basic courses; rather it is an emergency measure for occasional students who slip through the admissions net. To prevent too many unqualified students joining the Master’s programmes it would seem to be more important to know more about the level of foreign undergraduate degree courses. The proposed changes will make it more difficult for students with a good BSc degree, but one that does not mesh precisely with Wageningen MSc courses, to enter here at Master’s level.

Guido van Hofwegen