PPE to launch after four years of preparations: 'We’ve found our pioneering students'

Faculty Dean Janneke Plantenga with new PPE students. Photo DUB

‘Congratulations’ is the word of the day at the entrance of the international campus Auditorium. Rutger Claassen, senior lecturer of Philosophy and PPE programme coordinator, is constantly shaking people’s hands. Although colleagues congratulate him in Dutch, a lot of English is being spoken by the students surrounding them. Half of ‘his’ PPE students are internationals. Some come from neighbouring countries, Belgium or Germany, but many come from further away. There’s a Syrian refugee, for example, and a student from Israel, Claassen says.

The students don’t form groups of Dutch speakers, Spanish speakers, and English speakers – a consequence, student Matt (28) says, of the unwritten rule among students that they all speak English with each other. He says the group of 69 students is large enough for diversity in nationality, but too small to form cliques based on origins. German student Milena (18) and Dutch student Stijn (18) nod in agreement. “Everyone talks to everyone,” Stijn agrees.

‘You’re going to contribute to solving contemporary issues’
While the trio chats about the feasability of starting a podcast for PPE students, programme coordinator Claassen explains more about the programme’s ambitions. The goal is to teach students to analyse political and economic issues from four different academic points of view: philosophy, politics, economics, and history. The addition of the latter marks the biggest distinguishing factor between the PPE programme at the UU and comparable study programmes, such as the one at VU University Amsterdam. The most obvious career paths for students are ‘analytical functions with leadership roles in both the private and the public sector’. Or, as Annetje Ottow says during the launch: “You’re going to contribute to solving contemporary issues’.

The programme’s high ambitions led to a thorough selection process for the 75 available slots. Claassen explains they searched for a specific type of student. The 140 applicants were assessed on three criteria: international orientation, intellectual eagerness, and social skills. “This programme is not meant for students who prefer to study at home alone. You need to be open to learning from each other, you need to want to work together to build a thriving community, and you need to be prepared for a lot of group projects.”

‘Fear of being a programme’s first cohort’
Claassen says there were large differences between applicants. One had ‘only’ worked at Albert Heijn, while another had already completed an internship in Africa. 102 students passed the selection. The fact that there are 69 students present now, and not the aimed-for 75, has multiple causes, according to Claassen.

Firstly, students are always accepted into a programme under the condition that they meet the requirements for English and maths. For English, this means an average grade of an 8.0 for Dutch students at the end of their 5VWO (junior) year, and for international students, this means Cambridge-level English proficiency. For maths, too, there’s the requirement that students complete their courses at VWO level or its foreign equivalent. Several applicants didn’t manage to meet these requirements.

Secondly, some students possibly applied to multiple programmes, and may have chosen to pursue their studies elsewhere. “A third reason could be that some may have been afraid of being the programme’s first cohort. The programme at VU University Amsterdam received forty applications in its first year, eighty in the next, and 120 in its third year. We’d hoped, of course, to fill up the programme at once, but six fewer students isn’t bad at all for our first batch. We hope to receive more applications next year, so we’ll be able to refine our selection as well.”

It was hard to meet the Cambridge level of maths, says Indonesian student Sam (18) about the PPE application process. “The rest of the process was okay.” He has another idea about the possible “drop-out” rate of selected students: “It wasn’t easy to find a place to live in Utrecht.” There were rooms available at the international campus for eight PPE students; others had to find their own. And that was harder than expected, Sam says. “I can imagine it might’ve been a reason for others not to come to Utrecht. I found a room at a landlady’s house a day before I flew to the Netherlands.” That makes him one of the lucky ones. English student Matt is still sleeping on friends’ couches, and other students travel to Utrecht every day from all corners of the country.

‘I’m prepared to invest’
As the honours programme is small-scale and intensive (students have 16 weekly contact hours), the UU is allowed to set a higher tuition fee. For EU students, the fee is 4,120 euros a year; for non-EU students, 9,345 euros. It’s an amount Sam had to discuss with his parents, he says. “I hope I’ll be able to find a scholarship for next year.”

For the university council and the two faculty councils, a scholarship programme was a prerequisite to their agreement to the plans for the new study programme. The eight available scholarships are meant to benefit students who contribute to the diversity of the student population. Cultural minority students from either the Netherlands or the European Union can get a scholarship worth 1,100 euros a year. This scholarship isn’t available to non-EU students like Sam. The idea behind it is that the scholarship is a substantial reimbursement for EU students: the programme hopes to remove the barriers for these students, thereby increasing the group’s diversity. For non-EU students, the scholarship is less effective as its scope is limited.

The tuition fee was an issue to think about for Dutch student Manzoer (19), too, “but I’m willing to invest”. “I want to end up in the government, and if you want to be successful there, it’s important to combine disciplines. This is a good programme for that goal.” He downplays the consequence of having to take out higher student loans. “Of course it’s a lot of money, but if you look at tuitions in the US or the UK, this isn’t that bad at all.” Sam nods in agreement.

‘In-depth in a matter of minutes’
Although it’s too early for the students to say anything about the results of looking at issues from four scientific perspectives, they can already see the value of a diverse student population. Stijn: “By talking to everyone, you end up with a whole new world view. I thought Indonesia was a poor country, for example, and that political involvement there was low, but a fellow student from Indonesia painted a completely different picture of the country. And during a conversation about the financial crisis, I noticed the ideas a student from India had were completely different from mine.” Whether that’s actually a result of ethnicity, Manzoer can’t say. “I felt like there was mostly a distinction between people for and against capitalism. The level of the discussion surprised me. When I talk about politics with my friends, we stay at a rather superficial level. Here, our chats were in-depth in a matter of minutes.”

Beaming, Claassen raises his glass with a group of students. “Cheers,” they say in unison. Claassen: “We’ve found our group of pioneering students. They’re energetic, want to build the PPE community, and are looking forward to debating. And oh, yeah, I’ve noticed they can also drink and dance.”