Utrecht inspired by Oxbridge example

April 3, 1998

Oxbridge-style tutorials are part of Utrecht University's radical new approach to learning, inspired by a 17th-century English botanist.

The rethink comes at a time when funding cuts have led to bigger classes, as well as a curriculum trimmed to the bone and slanted towards science.

The result has been a demand for a more highbrow and broad approach to learning.

Utrecht's response has been to support the Universiteit Vrij van Nut, an extramural study centre for "usefulness".

The University of Usefulness is planning a comprehensive system of summer weekend courses and night classes during the academic year. Top guest lecturers and teachers, who are seen as "ambassadors" of learning, will dispense wisdom and knowledge.

Students will have to pay half the cost of expenses. A ten-day summer course will cost Pounds 150. The rest will come from commerce and industry keen to attract students who have a global perspective.

The scheme has brought a small but useful increase of funding from the mainstream university. A rise from Pounds 2,500 to Pounds 8,000 will kick-start a "Nehemia Study Project" to develop an Oxbridge tutorial-style of learning.

Frits Bienfait, the professor who helped to create the study centre, is an educational free-thinker and a specialist in plant biology.

Appreciating that one out of 20 students wants to reach the stars and is prepared to pay for the experience, he turned to a fellow botanist for inspiration.

Nehemiah Grew (1641-1712) was a man of Warwickshire who studied medicine at Leiden. While at the court of Charles II he published An Anatomy of Plants (1682).

Grew wrote: "To conclude, if but little should be effected, yet to design more, can do us no harm: for although a man shall never be able to hit stars by shooting at them; yet he shall come much nearer to them than another that throws at apples."

Three hundred and sixteen years later Nehemiah's words have been digitised.

Surf to Utrecht's web address and a dark blue sky full of stars and a rosy apple appears on screen. A double click on a star brings up the information pages of The University of Usefulness. A click on the apple leads to the information network of the University of Utrecht.

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