This article is a consequence of many conversations with international students from different tracks. In those, we would discuss the feeling that our programs were not pushing us forward, but instead they were forcing us to go back to deal with situations that, we thought, had no place in a Masters program of a renowned faculty. As it was said in the introduction, this feeling did not have to do so much with the actual content of courses, but rather with study group dynamics and the efforts that were needed to work with some Dutch students, who lacked skills, had low motivation and hardly engaged in group activities. In these discussions, we would also agree about the fact that this situation was not to blame to Dutch students themselves, but to the Faculty and, by extension, to the Dutch system of education. The main reasons behind this statement are three.
First, there is the academic dimension: there are Dutch students who have been automatically admitted into the masters after three years of bachelor, working together with internationals who have gone through a very competitive selection procedure. Students belonging to this second group have typically graduated as the best of their class and for many (usually the non-EU internationals) it is common to have five years of training and one or more years of professional experience. This is reflected in many aspects: the speed at which they can turn concepts into projects, their storytelling capacity, the knowledge they have of how things work outside academia and the level of their representation.
Then, there is the institutional factor. This is a university that works as a public and democratic institution for Dutch students and as an exclusive and high-cost school for the non-European world. Besides this, there is the European framework that equals the trajectories of European bachelors and internationals, even if they are evidently different in terms of accumulated knowledge and skills. Although it could be said that this raises the level of BK, it could also be said that it lowers the internationals’ level. A whole argument about colonial practices around knowledge could be made here, but that is a discussion for another article.
Third, there are expectations, both financial and academic. For internationals, being here is a privilege with a high cost: many either have bank loans or their families are making a huge investment in their education. For them, the two years at TU Delft must be worth it. Similarly, their academic expectations are high even before arrival: if everyone went through the same as they did, this place must be very good. This creates a sense of urgency and commitment that is not shared by many Dutch, which then inevitably leads to disappointment.
Frustrated by this situation, a colleague of mine exploded one day. After five years of bachelors, she was a licensed architect in her home country and, before joining BK, she had been a project leader at a well-known office for three years, as well as a studio teacher for one. Now, she was feeling that besides having to pay for an exaggeratedly high tuition fee, she was also partially in charge of the education of the inexperienced Dutch students in her work group. A perfectly valid point considering her trajectory, which qualifies her to be a practical replacement of teachers that will never have the time to “level-up” those students with the more dramatic knowledge and motivation gaps.
Here, an interesting question arises: are the efforts of studio coordinators to have mixed groups following a legitimate attempt to promote diversity? Or is this a well-intentioned strategy to make the gap between Dutch and internationals’ academic level less evident? It may sound paranoid, but the results of not mixing can be disastrous. Take an Architecture studio of last semester: all Dutch enrolled in it either failed without the possibility of a repair (three of them) or dropped out before finals (one of them), while of thirteen internationals, only one failed and one dropped. What happened in that studio seems to be more than just an anecdote, but this is something we will never know for certain unless the faculty starts monitoring the impact of professional and academic background in students’ performance. In responses to different emails, Erik Ootes, from the Education and Student Affairs department of the faculty, and Aart Oxenaar, director of education, wrote that this kind of monitoring was not currently implemented at the faculty, and that there were no future plans to do so.
This, I believe, is a lost opportunity to understand all the consequences of being a diverse place, using all the data there is. Instead, BK seems to be focusing only in highlighting the parts that help sell its programes to the world, while conveniently avoiding those discussions that should be everyday practice in a university, and a country, that sees itself as tolerant and open to diversity.
Here, as a sort of caveat, it is worth saying that this is not intended to be a trial on Dutch students. They can be hard-working people, and even if they are not, they are in their right to take it easy with their studies. Subsidized access to education allows them to try things and decide if they like them or not halfway through the process. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could do that? Unfortunately, the unequal world we live in does not allow for that, so we must think about alternatives.
As usual, it is easier to diagnose a problem than to fix it. Nonetheless, I believe that post-master programs are an interesting option to be explored. Their admission process, which focuses on the actual experience of students, could be open for high-level Dutch and European bachelor students. To make the programs more attractive, they should also allow their graduates to practice professionally in the Netherlands (something they cannot easily do today.) Yet, the faculty seems to be moving away from these programs: the European Post-master in Urbanism (EMU) was defunded and is set to be shut down after this year, and the haute-couture program of the Berlage is now the only unrealistic option for post-master students (they only admit 13 students per year).
To conclude, I invite the reader to think about this situation not as a problem of two confronted sides, but by considering that this is an unfair situation for all students that the faculty has been unable to tackle. Is it fair for some students to feel that they have extra academic pressure while their parent's pockets are being drained? No. Just as it isn’t fair for the Dutch factor to have a weight it should not have, lying between excessive expectations and a system that equalizes what is not equal.