It wasn’t easy for me to turn down a place at Cambridge in favour of studying in Amsterdam. As the end of my first year approaches, however, I’m in no doubt that I made the right choice.
After an international childhood spent living in four different countries, I wanted to be in a global city. I also wasn’t sure which subject I wanted to study, and the liberal arts course at Amsterdam University College allows me to explore a range of options.
The Netherlands is a very relaxed country – as shown by its liberal attitude towards drugs and prostitution – and this laid-back vibe is central to the student experience.
Here’s why Dutch student life trumps that in Britain.
1. You’re a part of the place you live
Dutch universities typically offer fewer societies, so students take part in activities in their town or city – such as amateur sports teams and local choirs. I help to organise European Youth Parliament conferences in Amsterdam.
Nicole Brusa, who studied at University College Roosevelt in Middleburg last year, volunteered at her local art museum. She spent weekends there, “as a way of escaping the study bubble and doing something that has nothing to do with the university”.
Others volunteer at food banks, charities and even refugee camps. Brusa, who lived on campus, points out: “You need to meet people from outside the gated community that you live in. You know, the university world isn’t real.”
2. You cycle everywhere
The idea of jumping on your bike on a summer’s day to cycle down Amsterdam’s canals is pretty idyllic. But you have to cycle to get around every day, no matter what time of year.
Cycling in sleety wind in January isn’t always blissful, but it does mean you get daily exercise without any extra effort.
Hero Scott, a British student at Amsterdam University College, says: “The Netherlands is designed for cyclists, so it’s by far the best way to get around, whether you’re going to the supermarket or the club.”
3. Sport is an integral part of life
Children in the Netherlands are brought up playing multiple sports from a young age and, unlike in England, they keep this up as they get older – and that includes the girls.
“Most of my friends have played field hockey, tennis and football from the moment they could walk,” says Hannah Drooglever Fortuyn, a student at the University of Amsterdam.
Their sports teams often aren’t related to the university, giving students another chance to expand their friendship circles.
4. There’s time to travel
At Dutch universities, students typically have classes for around 40 weeks each year. This may sounds hellish to British students who are used to a month off at Easter and Christmas – in the Netherlands you get a maximum of two weeks off for these holidays.
But after seven months here, I’ve realised I actually prefer this system. Because you’re here for so long, you have to build a varied life for yourself, organising day trips to other Dutch cities or exploring your university city.
The location of the Netherlands – in the middle of western Europe – also means that cheap weekend trips are very easy to do. You can get to Antwerp, Cologne or Paris in a few hours by coach.
5. The work is spread out
There is more time for academic reading and assignments – this reduces stress levels and means you can pursue other interests without affecting your grades.
My friends at British universities, with much shorter terms, often complain about not having enough time to do everything they want to do. The cliché of work hard, play hard really applies here.
One Cambridge student, who wanted to remain anonymous, says: “We have to cram about 10 weeks’ worth of work into an eight-week term, while also doing extracurricular activities like plays and rowing. Each term feels like a marathon run at sprint pace.”
6. Doing a master’s is a matter of course
It’s very common for students at Dutch universities to do a master’s after their first degree, especially after a liberal arts course, where you study a broad range of subjects.
Employers in the Netherlands tend to focus on your postgraduate qualification rather than your bachelor’s, so you have the luxury of discovering new areas of interest in your first degree without worrying about what you want to do later.
Thanks to the broad nature of my course, I could still end up majoring in anything from international relations to art history. There’s no pressure to decide what to do later – or even race to get internships. The working world is still a few years off.