17 January 2019

University College Utrecht and Liberal Arts and Sciences:

Bachelor programmes that make students shift perspectives

University College Utrecht embraces a classical Liberal Arts and Sciences approach, characterised by a broad orientation that goes far beyond teaching academic skills. Next to University College, Utrecht University’s Faculty of Humanities runs its own Liberal Arts and Sciences programme. At the advent of the third National Interdisciplinary Education Conference at University College Utrecht on 22 January 2019, the Directors of Education of both institutes, Sabine Uijl and Iris van der Tuin, discuss their chosen approaches on interdisciplinarity, and on education. Where are the differences, where do the institutes join hands?

The first university college in the Netherlands and pioneer in Liberal Arts and Sciences in the country, University College Utrecht has been around for the past 20 years. The bachelor programme Liberal Arts and Sciences is of a more recent date; it started in 2004 as the very track that has an interdisciplinary core.

Sabine Uijl (left) and Iris van der Tuin

Sabine and Iris, before we start sorting out the similarities and differences of the two programmes, could you explain in a few words what is so specific to your own institute?

Iris: We educate disciplined interdisciplinarians. Our students may specialise in majors throughout the university, and thus learn disciplinary content, or they may choose a major that has an interdisciplinary thematic approach. But what counts for us most is the method: we teach them to think in an interdisciplinary way in that they learn to integrate insights from different fields.

Sabine: Our education is small-scale, residential, selective, and multidisciplinary in its approach. We offer our whole curriculum on the campus itself, which makes us a true community. Students are trained in different disciplines next to each other, after which they graduate in one or more disciplines. We do offer interdisciplinary courses, but they are interdisciplinary thematically, and the aim is not primarily to teach interdisciplinary methods.

What, then, do you see as the unique merits of your respective approach? What do students find there that they would not find in other studies?

Iris: Our students may choose for a disciplinary or a thematic master, or they can find work in inter- or multidisciplinary teams. What they learn with us is how to integrate insights, collaborate with others from different fields and take different roles depending on the team and the context.

Sabine: In our classes, students bring their different backgrounds. While the topic may be disciplinary, we believe that various backgrounds and knowledge in the same classroom make learning a richer experience. The role of the teacher is then to get the best out of students at that moment and in that very context.

If I look at the Liberal Arts and Sciences curriculum, it would seem, Iris, that you delve your students into multidisciplinary tracks as well.

Iris: Yes, we do that in the first year. There, students take a number of courses at any faculty. The students have to learn to write in different styles, depending on the discipline, and we highlight the differences and similarities of different disciplines in a collaborative project they do. So in the first year they learn to reflect on disciplines, after which the second and third year are interdisciplinary in nature.

Although University College Utrecht and Liberal Arts and Sciences work in a different way, it would seem that it is the same kind of students who fit in both: curious, not afraid to cross borders and take new paths, interested in many things…

Sabine: But isn’t that only obvious? It is the core of the Liberal Arts and Sciences approach that binds us. We both look across disciplines, and we bring together different perspectives. It attracts students who have the courage to do so.

Iris: We typically get students who have visited many open days and can’t choose, because they have interest in every subject and want to combine them.

And yet there are many differences as for which students fit best in which programme…

Iris: Yes, for sure. It is up to what the student wants: study in Dutch or in English, live on a campus or not, etcetera.

Sabine: Especially the campus as a community is a very decisive factor for our students. The social aspect is very important for us, not only the academic content. Not every student wants to spend three years in a social hub.

Iris: Our students do extra-curricular activities as well, only, they do it in different places.

Do you see possibilities for further collaboration in sharing courses?

Iris: It is thinkable, but as we both have made our choices, we can’t merge the programmes deliberately. But I can imagine that there is a University College student who wants to learn the integrative interdisciplinary method. I would be the first one to make that possible.

Sabine: We are also open to receive students from Liberal Arts and Sciences, but as they would rather look at disciplinary courses, they may not choose for us. Yet, if they do, we will certainly welcome them.

If we then look at Liberal Arts and Sciences education as such, what makes it so relevant in today’s society?

Iris: Take, for example a student who wants to study circular economy. For that, you will need economics, business and innovation studies, some biology etcetera. Or, take a student interested in the nature-nurture debate, who will combine biology and gender studies. In fact, some of our students take the Sustainable Development Goals as their starting point and pick their subjects from there. Such topics belong to the world as it is now. The world does not conform itself to academic disciplines.

Sabine: I think the main thing is that our current employment field is not that disciplinary anymore, and it will continue to change. The students we have are problem-solvers: they want to create solutions to the big world-wide issues we face today, and those issues are too complex to tackle in a traditional disciplinary way. You need to speak the languages of many different disciplines at the same time. We teach our students that different disciplines employ different languages indeed. That approach needs an open mind.

Iris: We should also add that Liberal Arts and Sciences includes a sort of transformational experience, where students reflect on their whole personality and being. It is the study itself that changes who they are and their perspective on society.

Can you tell a little about the National Interdisciplinary Education Conference and what you expect from it?

Iris: The initiative was taken by the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies at University of Amsterdam. They saw that they were not the only ones dealing with interdisciplinary education and started to create a national network, which now includes also Universities for Applied Science. In the end, it is all about the question how to build education around the uncertainties of the world, and of the job market. Which competences do you need to teach students? This year, we look especially at integration of student perspectives in education, also at the syllabus level. Next to that, we will discuss how to treat your external partners as knowledge producers.

Sabine: In fact, the conference is international, and getting even more international, as the Netherlands has a pioneering role in interdisciplinary education in Europe. Furthermore we see that disciplinary programmes have started to incorporate elements from interdisciplinary and Liberal Arts and Sciences programmes as well. I expect that there will be participants from the disciplinary programmes as well.

Iris: We will look at the different ways to teach interdisciplinarity, and the different meanings it has. There, I can only think of the Interdisciplinarity Conference which University College Utrecht organised last September. We came to the conclusion that interdisciplinarity can mean quite a few different things. There is not just one meaning to what interdisciplinarity is or should be, nor is there just one way to do it, but many. The various communities around interdisciplinarity should meet each other and learn from each other.


Interested in interdisciplinary teaching? Look at the website of Association for Interdisciplinary Studies (US).

Interested in the next international conference on interdisciplinary teaching and learning? Read more about the Association for Interdisciplinary Studies Conference in Amsterdam in October 2019.

Interested to know what University College Utrecht and Liberal Arts and Sciences students think of each other’s programmes? DUB made students swap places