University
The festive opening of Campus Fryslân in November 2019. Photo by Felipe Silva

Two university colleges in the north

‘The first five years are the pioneering phase’

Campus Fryslân is struggling due to disappointing student numbers. The University College Groningen also has fewer students than they’d hoped. Will the second UG university college ever work out?


Anne de Vries

Door Anne de Vries

3 March om 16:59 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 3 March 2020
om 17:01 uur.
Anne de Vries

By Anne de Vries

March 3 at 16:59 PM.
Last modified on March 3, 2020
at 17:01 PM.
Anne de Vries

Anne de Vries

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This year, only fifty-three students enrolled at the University College Fryslân. It’s just one third of the 150 students the province of Friesland and the UG counted on in their ambitious plans for the Frisian branch of the University of Groningen.

It was a disappointment, especially since the Frisian campus was announced with much fanfare. The province of Friesland was willing to put in a lot of money for a Leeuwarden branch: it invested seventeen million euros into building the new campus. Frisian students are also given a 4,800 euro subsidy if they decide to do a bachelor programme in Leeuwarden. The UG itself promised to stay for at least fifteen years. 

It can’t be for a lack of quality. The Higher Education Keuzegids named University College Fryslân bachelor programme in global responsibility and leadership a top programme two years in a row.

Competition

So what is going on? Is there even room for another expensive, exclusive study programme in the north? There are eleven in the entire country, two of which are connected to the UG.

This has had its effect on the influx of students. The University College Groningen (UCG) was one of the last, in 2014, counting on an average of two hundred students a year. But in the first two years, only thirty enrolled. The UCG has since adjusted its expectations to 130 to 150 students a year. 

The national university college market is very complicated

No wonder then, that people at the UCG were surprised at the plans for the University College Fryslân. ‘We wondered if it was going to work out, since we were still working on our own department’, says UCG programme manager Rob van Ouwerkerk. ‘The national university college market is very complicated and competitive.’

The struggling UCG faced its biggest competition from other UG study programmes. ‘Approximately one fifth of the people who register with us also register with another UG programme’, says Van Ouwerkerk. 

Brain drain

Nevertheless, another university college was set up. While an earlier attempt by the province of Friesland to set up a University Campus Fryslân had failed,

the UG saw potential, due in part to the fact that the Frisians were so eager to prevent the brain drain from their province, they were willing to invest quite a bit of money. ‘Only 3 percent of students actually stay in Friesland’, says house representative with the Frisian provincial states Sander de Rouwe. ‘We’re chauvinistic enough to admit that we’d like to keep them here.’ 

Another factor is that the UG is getting too big for Groningen. Not only is it practically impossible for students to find a place to live, but the university departments are constantly looking for more room, as well. ‘Sibrand Poppema and Jouke de Vries were faced with a practical problem: there was no room to grow in Groningen. At the same time, they had the ambition to creat a University of the North, rather than just Groningen’, says De Rouwe.

Students in the lounge of the UCG building, spring 2017. Photo by Traci White

So the Campus Fryslân opened its doors in 2018. It currently offers six master programmes, a research programme, but most importantly: another university college.

Approach

The goal was for the university college to be markedly different than the one in Groningen. For one, it doesn’t offer any of the liberal arts and sciences courses that most other colleges do. ‘We’re focused on global challenges and make use of regional knowledge’, says Campus Fryslân dean Andrej Zwitter. 

In this case, the regional knowledge is the Frisian expertise on water management, the dairy industry, and circular economy. Education is focused on sustainability, following the sustainable development goals set by the United Nations. 

Groningen, however, offers a programme built on pillars ranging from hard science to the humanities. ‘You need to have your own approach’, says Van Ouwerkerk. ‘We focus on the programme and the courses, not a central theme like they do in Friesland. That way, we’re not in competition. We fell into a fairly natural symbiosis, really.’ 

The university colleges are not in competition with each other 

The attempt to be distinctive and not in competition with each other appears to be working. Of the students who registered for multiple programmes, only five had done so at both UCG and Campus Fryslân. ‘I was looking for courses on sustainability. That, and the fact that the classes are so small makes this a unique programme’, says second-year student Marc Flessa (21) from Germany when asked why he picked UCG. 

First-year student Roel van Klaveren (20), who grew up in Leeuwarden, initially wanted nothing more than to leave the city, but the course programme at Campus Fryslân convinced him. ‘Here, we learn how to make the world a better place and use our own creativity in a practical way.’ 

Disappointing

In spite of all this, the truth remains that too few students have enrolled at Leeuwarden. Multi-million euro investor the province of Friesland, isn’t happy. ‘The results are very disappointing’, says Sybren Posthumus with opposition party the Frisian National Party. ‘Other institutes who don’t perform as expected have their subsidies cut.’

He fears the project will cost the province a fortune and not deliver sufficient results. ‘We thought this campus would be the thing that kept young talent in Friesland, that it would be our big academic catch’, says Posthumus. ‘But maybe this campus is just too niche to be successful.’ 

So far, people’s awareness of the campus is also lacking. When Posthumus’ daughter was looking at places to study, the UG branch in Leeuwarden was nowhere to be found, he says. ‘We’re simply invisible at these crucial moments when people make a choice.’

Marketing

Representative De Rouwe realised this when a third-year high school class visited him at his office. ‘They didn’t even know they could attend university in Leeuwarden. There’s so much more work to do to show the world that we exist.’

So, more marketing? 

Van Ouwerkerk emphasises that this is extremely important. ‘We can’t limit ourselves to just the UG’s general flyers’, he says. ‘We have to specifically target people.’ 

It’s like life in Leeuwarden ends at six o’clock

The question that remains, though, is whether marketing can turn Leeuwarden into the exciting city many students are looking for. ‘Life in Leeuwarden is so slow. Even the music they play in pubs is slow’ complains Madhu Balasubramanian (26) from Bangalore, India. 

‘It’s almost like life ends at six o’clock at night’, says Vania Cano Olvera (36) from Mexico City. The master students of sustainable entrepreneurship are both glad the programme only lasts one year. ‘It’s a good programme and Dutch people are nice, but I’m leaving as soon as we’re done’, says Cano Olvera. 

Plan of attack

Because of the disappointing student numbers, the province requested Campus Fryslân come up with a new plan of attack, which was discussed by the province two weeks ago. 

Zwitter wants to create extra master programmes, as well as shorter educational programmes. ‘We’re on course for next years, and the quality of our education is good’, says Zwitter. He wants to make the campus more attractive by setting up an extra bachelor programme in data science and society. 

He’d better act fast, though; the province of Friesland is keeping a close eye on the development. On top of that, the campus has an agreement with the UG that half of the seventeen million euro subsidy will be paid out proportionate to the number of students. If there are fewer students, the UG gets less money. 

Then there are the plans for the future: the UG has promised to stay in Leeuwarden for at least fifteen years, which means the university is financially responsible for the campus during that time. 

Van Ouwerkerk says Campus Fryslân should take heart, though. ‘It’s well known at university colleges that the first five years are a pioneering phase.’ He thinks it takes time to properly set up a college. ‘We happen to focus on critical students, who are hard to please.’

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