What is EUC?
In 2013, Erasmus University College was founded as an undergraduate college of Erasmus University. During this three-year, English language, bachelor programme (also referred to as a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences), students live and study together: it is compulsory for first year students to reside in the Student Hotel. In the near future, EUC will have its own student accommodation in the centre of Rotterdam. The bachelor’s programme offers courses in the Arts & Humanities, Social and Behavioural Sciences and Life Sciences. Students (ideally half of whom are Dutch and the other half international) are selected on their marks and motivation. Currently, almost all the Dutch universities offer a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts & Sciences; these degrees are generally offered through the medium of a university college.
Honestly, best job in the world.’ The vacancy for the new dean of the Erasmus University College (EUC) was announced last month. Maarten Frens was quick to enthuse his potential successors. “I immediately shared the vacancy on Twitter and added that text, because it really is the best job in the world. So why am I leaving? I believe it would be very healthy for someone with a different approach to step in right now. Something beautiful has been created, but it is not quite finished. Over the past years we have mainly been occupied with building up the organisation and the programme. In the coming years, time should be spent on strengthening the position of the EUC in the city, within the university and the rest of the world. But I am leaving with a heavy heart.”
When Frens starts talking about his years at EUC, two things immediately stand out: his enthusiasm and commitment. “I will never, ever give the impression that I created the University College on my own. Far from it! I was proud to lead it, but I have always worked with a team of very competent people. If I say that I am proud of what I have managed to achieve, that just shows how enormously interwoven I have become with this institution and the students.”
His personal highlight of the past years? Frens immediately refers to the EUCjr programme. During this programme, pupils from several secondary schools in Rotterdam South receive the opportunity to spend eight days at the University College. “We have scholarships for students who would normally have difficulty gaining admission. The most distinctive are the decennial ROTAS scholarships. This enables them to study free of charge and they receive an allowance towards their study costs and housing.”
The financial support is intended for secondary school pupils from Rotterdam who come from non-academic family backgrounds, the so-called first-generation students. However, they are not warming to the scholarship. “There has not been one year when we have managed to attract anywhere near ten pupils. We noticed that there is more at stake with this target group than higher study costs. Studying is exciting at the best of times, let alone a programme aimed at the best students.
Everyone thinks the building (the former public library from 1923, close to train station Blaak – ed.) is beautiful, but I can imagine that it must all be very intimidating for someone from Rotterdam South. If a student who grew up in Singapore or New York guides you through an Open Day, someone from Rotterdam South will think: oh, I grew up in Beverwaard. The EUCjr intends to take away those obstacles.”
The existence of those obstacles became clear to him during Frens’ intensive contacts with students in the Erasmus MC Honours Class. That’s when he discovered that not everyone takes it for granted to be able to walk around the university, for example when they come from a non-academic family. “As a third-generation academic, I never thought about it.” Due to the impact of those obstacles, it bothers him immensely that EUC is supposedly a school for the wealthy. “I do not believe that we only attract rich kids. Just because we look for elitists among students, doesn’t mean that we ourselves are elite.
Since the very first brainstorming sessions in 2011, Frens has been involved with the development of the EUC. Back then he was training coordinator of the Bachelor of Medicine programme and felt a deep commitment to education. When the vacancy for dean arose, Frens seized his chance. “It was a fantastic challenge.” However, his love for the lab made him slightly hesitant. “I started in the lab when I was 22 and that’s where I really feel at home. But when I submitted my application I was 44, so I thought: I am now halfway through my career, doing something else for a while is not such a bad idea.”
Frens’ dream for the EUC was clear from the start: a broad bachelor programme with a tight community in the heart of the city. Nevertheless, the route to the top over the past years did not run smoothly. Particularly the housing of the EUC was a major concern for Frens and his colleagues. “The construction of our building was almost ready when disaster struck. Part of the roof collapsed following a heavy downpour. The leak meant that all the newly installed pipes had to be replaced. We moved to Schielandhuis and the Erasmus MC, thinking that we would be starting in our new building within six weeks, but the misery in the construction industry put an end to that. We immediately had to find another building and spent eight months in the old courthouse on the Noordsingel.” As a neuroscientist, Frens had no experience with these matters. “No, I took on this role for the education. I learnt plenty during that initial period.”
Besides the material issues, there were also teething problems with the education in the first few years. The workload for both students and employees was too high, communication with the students was not optimal and the rankings in, for example, the Keuzegids (the annual publication in which the bachelor programmes are ranked), were not fantastic. “We were the new kid on the block, so it would have been strange if they had been. Panic never broke out. We were all convinced that what we were doing was right.”
The lesser rankings in the early years are easily explained, according to Frens. “Compared to other University Colleges, our ranking was indeed far from fantastic. We came sixth out of eight. But we were still better ranked than most other EUR programmes, and we had only just started. How come? All UCs are good, because they are the only institutes within the universities that fully and intensively focus on education.” Another explanation for the success is the strict selection criteria of the UCs. “As a result, you attract student that really want to make a go of it. Employees are more motivated to teach this group of students and so you end up in an upward spiral with everyone encouraging each other.”
Two hundred names
In his last few months as dean, Fens has left the teething problems behind him. The beautiful new building in the city centre has become the permanent home, the number of first year students has grown from 90 to approximately 200 and in the latest edition of the Keuzegids the programme has been designated ‘top programme.’
Frens’ greatest pride is the community that was created. He also mentions the mutual commitment as the ‘key to the success’ of the EUC. “My contribution to that is that I am approachable for everyone: students, academic and non-academic staff, but also the cleaners and the doorman. I take decisions based on arguments and I am always prepared to explain them. I believe it is important that everyone feels they are being taken seriously, feels responsible and respects each other. It is great that this EUC grew from nothing.”
The increasing number of students makes it more difficult, however, to maintain those short lines. Remembering the names of all the students, for example, is something that always earned Frens great admiration. That is no longer as easy as it was at first. “I still find it important, but it is more difficult with 200 new students instead of 90. This year, we have therefore made it a competition. Together with three other colleagues, I agreed that we would meet at the end of the summer holidays to test each other’s memory. That provides an added incentive, because you do not want to look like a fool. Of the four colleagues, three got all two hundred names correct, including me.”
This summer, Frens will hand over the EUC baton and return to the lab, where he will continue his brain research. This decision continues to create very mixed feelings. “I really look forward to going back to the lab. During all this time, I continued to work there one day a week. My seven doctoral candidates are still hard at work and fortunately I do not feel that I am being given the cold shoulder when I am there.
Furthermore, at this moment in time I feel confident about handing over the EUC. It is financially healthy, the building is ready, it is ranked as ‘top programme’ and the employees are happy. But I have had such a nice time here that I will still feel quite emotional about no longer being the dean. It was a great adventure. Nowhere will ever be nicer than this, that’s impossible. But just as nice, who knows?”
Maarten Frens (1966) studied Biomedical Sciences and Medical Biology in Utrecht and obtained his doctorate from Radboud University Nijmegen. After having worked in Switzerland and Australia for almost three years, he took up a position as a post-doctoral researcher at Erasmus MC. Since 2004, Frens has been the Professor of Systems Physiology at Erasmus MC; between 2011 and 2013, he was also the study coordinator for the bachelor degree in Medicine. In April 2013, he was appointed the founding dean of Erasmus University College, which welcomed its first students in September 2013. On Twitter, Frens uses the pseudonym @hersenprofessor.