“It is the most diverse education in Belgium and maybe even of all our neighbouring countries”
The Social Sciences program is still in its infancy, but it is already expected that this English-language program will be the largest Bachelor’s degree program in the VUB. A conversation with Dieter Vandebroeck, Professor of Sociology Department at the VUB and Program Director of Education, and Portugal Rita Raleira, Student Representative of Social Sciences, on the challenges, expectations and opportunities of a new inter-university, interdisciplinary and international bachelor.
Although Social Sciences is a brand-new study and hardly any advertising was made last year, this program has become the second largest bachelor’s degree program at VUB. Who or what do they owe their success to?
Dieter Vandebroeck: “When we launched the bachelor last year, there was indeed little advertising available, beyond marketing online and practical and substantive information on the website of the VUB. It is still a miracle to us that so many students have enrolled for this English bachelor. When we started it, about sixty enrollments were expected, but in the end, 146 students enrolled themselves for the academic year 2016-2017. Thus, Social Sciences became the second largest bachelor’s degree in the VUB after Law. This year, more time was actively spent on marketing during the info days, SID-ins, education fellowships and, of course, there is more word of mouth publicity. All of this means that according to the latest figures we can expect almost double the amount of registrations. We keep in mind that we may now start with 300 students in the first bachelor.”
Rita Raleira: “The first time I read about this course was in a dark, suspicious corner of the internet. Then I sent an email to the university with the question of whether this bachelor actually existed. Since this year, there is much more information available online. That can also be a reason why there is even more interest in Social Sciences.”
Last year, there were no less than 43 different nationalities in the program, with students from Canada, Egypt, Pakistan and Mexico. Will the proportion of Belgian students now increase as there are mainly Belgian students involved in marketing?
Vandebroeck: “Before the start of the program, we thought we were mainly speaking to students with a Belgian nationality, but this did not prove to be the case. 26 percent of students had a Belgian nationality, 13 percent had a double nationality, 36 percent of the group consisted of EU students this year, and the remaining 25 percent were non-EU students. For the coming academic year, we have received applications from people from over 70 different countries. It is the most diverse program in Belgium and perhaps even of all our neighbours. This diversity makes the program even more beautiful.”
Raleira: “The fact that we sit together with so many nationalities in one aula means that discussions are of more colour now. Everyone has his own cultural background and his own view on the world. For example, when speaking in the class about terrorism, there are, for example, Middle Eastern students who have a different perspective on terror. That diversity makes discussions versatile and interesting.”
What makes this bachelor so unique is that it is fully taught in English. Isn’t this an obstacle for students who are fresh out of secondary school?
Rita Raleira: “When you apply for this course, you are required to demonstrate that you are proficiency level of English is high enough. For example, you must submit a good result of a recognized language test, or prove that you have already obtained a degree in an institution where English is the language of instruction. People with English as their native language or students who graduate from a Belgian high school are not obligated to do a language test.”
Vandebroeck: “We have noticed this year that there was uncertainty about the conditions regarding the prior knowledge of English. Dossiers were often evaluated individually, which allowed some students to participate without a test. In the future, all students who do not have English as a native language will not have a diploma from an educational institution that uses English as a language of instruction or have failed secondary education in Belgium to take a language test. Only for students participating in the Welcome Student-Refugees Program we want to make an exception. These are refugees who are helped by the VUB to attend a university course. Because these language tests are often quite expensive, we want to find a cheaper solution for them to be still able to screen for their language skills.”
How was the integration of these students?
Vandebroeck: “The Welcome Student-Refugee Program of the VUB helps refugees to follow a course at the VUB. A program of social sciences is very popular amongst people with such a background, and we had tens of refugees from, among others, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq who enrolled in Social Sciences. For the program, that was a huge enrichment. This year we will actively include the experiences of these refugees in the lessons and we will sit down with them to see how we can integrate their stories in a respectful way in the curriculum.”
Does the language barrier affect student results in comparison to similar Dutch-speaking programs?
Vandebroeck: “Most students studying Social Sciences are not native speakers and have a different mother tongue than English, which means they are given an education in a foreign language.We are now investigating whether this has had any impact on student performance. For the first semester of the previous academic year, we did not see any difference in results between students who have English as their mother tongue and those who do not. Even when it comes to student failure, the number of students who drop out after one year ends with university studies are the first indications that this will be well below the Flemish average of 36 percent. We need to keep an eye on the fact that the program does not evolve into a two-speed course where there are students who manage English well and find the education easy and on the other hand students who are struggling with the transition, which makes the program too difficult for them.”
Raleira: “What makes this education so great is the practical approach of the classes. We have a lot of discussions, papers and group work. It was noticeable last year that professors were struggling to provide everyone with the necessary feedback. Because most courses are taught in a foreign language, it is important that these forms of work be maintained. You can not learn to write without writing.”
Vandebroeck: “The VUB has released a considerable amount of extra resources for the program, which includes six additional full-time assistants. The UGent will do the same. In order to ensure that we can continue to offer these practical assets such as group work and discussions, it was decided within the university to invest heavily in the program. If you expect three hundred new students, you have to prepare yourself. The VUB has the reputation of being small and I even say at the welcome event: “Here’s a face, no number,” but if you need to approach three hundred students, that philosophy becomes a challenge. The challenge is to realize that small-scale and personal approach where the VUB stands for. Our mantra is: the quantity of students should not affect the quality of education.”
Is it practically feasible to work out such a complex bachelor with two universities?
Vandebroeck: “All students who start in the Social Sciences program are both VUB and UGent students. The scholarships for the study are also equally divided between both universities. In the first two years, all classes are taught at the VUB by professors of both the UGent and the VUB. In the third and final bachelor students will also attend the UGent. Organizing a structure between two universities is not easy. Furthermore, the course is also interdisciplinary. This makes the organization of the training very complex. Just organizing a meeting with the assistants of the different departments is an immense assignment. The VUB has taken the lead again and has appointed a full-time employee in the summer months to develop such logistics.”
Raleira: “As a student in this program, you have more feeling with the VUB. It took more than a year to get a UGent student card. As a result, I could not access their library and student restaurant. That was very unfortunate.”
Vandebroeck: “The occurrence of these student cards is a good example of how two universities cannot communicate well about everything. First, the subscriptions at the VUB must be processed and finalized, then forwarded to the UGent and must be resubmitted by another system. This year it is a priority that those student cards will be delivered in November because many students want that. I will personally verify that these practical issues are alright.”
Is enough done to integrate the international student in the university?
Rita Raleira: “A lot of stuff at the VUB is already in English and in general you can easily find your way into university life, but you still notice that there is room for improvement. For example, most communication at the VUB usually occurs in Dutch, for example in the library and some e-mails. The Student Council is also mainly Dutch-speaking. These are all small things that can be bothersome.”
Vandebroeck: “Within the VUB you now have the International Student Platform (ISP) that represents the international student’s voice within the Student Council, but that is still not a direct representation. In the past, international students often studied here for one or two years to return home afterwards. With this new program, you will have students from abroad who will continue to study for three or four years and thus more and more can represent the international student’s voice. The VUB will have to undergo a mentality change. There are also prejudices against the international student. It is often thought that they are ‘City-tripping’, ‘Cappuccino sipping’ young people who go on short skis twice a year. It was very enriching to see that these students are in the minority in Social Sciences. There are sons and daughters of diplomats, but also students who were still in a refugee camp last year or Americans coming here to be able to attend an affordable education.”
How do you see the future of Social Sciences?
Raleira: “This program has so much potential. We are close to the European Union institutions and receive lectures from people working in European Commissions or committed to social projects around the world. I am very happy that I chose this course.”
Vandebroeck: “The program now has some teething problems which it will grow out of in the years to come. I see it as a train that sets its own tracks. Looking at it on paper, many would say you are crazy to even organize such a program. If you look at what we’ve all realized in a year’s time, I think we’re happy to look back. I also think that this program has a lot of potential for the future. After all, we are all social scientists, we are happy to discuss and we often come to the right solutions.”