Belgian universities target gap in the market for social sciences

New course is already bringing in a strikingly diverse student cohort

October 2, 2016
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Joined-up thinking: the new degree programme run by two universities in Belgium will include analysis of Brexit

Two Belgian universities have launched a pioneering interdisciplinary and international bachelor’s degree in the social sciences.

After Dubai, says programme director Dieter Vandebroeck, professor of sociology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), “Brussels is the second most cosmopolitan city in world”.

But although the children of many working for Nato, the European Union or the diplomatic community attend English-language schools, once they want to start university “there is nowhere to go for those who are non-French and non-Dutch speakers. What is available in English is at master’s level and dominated by economics and management.”

It was this gap in the market that led VUB to join forces with Ghent University to create an interdisciplinary bachelor’s degree in the social sciences aimed firmly at the international market.

As well as taking core modules in sociology, political science and communications, students will attend seminars in which they are encouraged to apply all three disciplinary perspectives to a single major contemporary issue, and to reflect on areas of convergence and divergence.

Analysis of Brexit, for example, might address demographic factors, the political implications and the role of the media alongside each other. Given the location of the course, the EU, its history and functioning will naturally occupy a prominent place in the curriculum.

The first two years of the three-year programme will be taught at VUB, while the third will depend on which electives the students choose, although equal teaching will be provided by academic faculty from both institutions.

Factors such as “the shortage of bachelor’s programmes in English in Western Europe, the course’s relevance and its unusual interdisciplinary focus” led Professor Vandebroeck to predict that it would prove popular.

Yet initial projections for 60 students proved a notable underestimate despite limited marketing efforts. By the third day of the programme but with registration still open, the figures had reached 117 students of over 30 different nationalities.

Of these, 43 per cent are Belgian (although often with dual nationality), 33 per cent non-Belgian EU citizens and 24 per cent non-EU citizens. The last category includes students from Canada, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Mozambique and Pakistan, some of whom have travelled to Belgium expressly to take the course.

Sixteen more come from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan as part of VUB’s “Welcome Refugee” scheme.

Such diversity may be unusual in Belgian undergraduate degrees, but Professor Vandebroeck believes it can only enrich the learning experience if students from across the globe bring a variety of perspectives to contentious international issues.

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