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 by Ben Taylor
, posted on 14 Mar '19

My Masters in Amsterdam – Expectations vs Reality

If you’re thinking about studying a Masters abroad, you’ll probably have a fair few expectations about life as an international postgraduate. These might be to do with the nationality of your future friends, the difficulty of your course and the lifestyle you’ll lead when you arrive in your new home.

When I began my Masters at the University of Amsterdam in 2016, I brought a similar set of expectations with me. Some of them weren’t too far from the truth, while others were way off.

Expectation – I won’t be able to ride a bike

Before arriving in Amsterdam, I had a horrible feeling that I wouldn’t be able to ride a bike. It had been several years since I’d touched the rusty mountain bike in my parents’ shed, and the prospect of piloting a bike through Amsterdam’s throngs of tourists was a worrying one.

Reality – Okay, I was a little shaky the first time I rode my rickety Dutch bike, but within a couple of weeks I was negotiating Amsterdam’s extensive network of cycle paths like a local. I didn’t have a single fender-bender during my time in Amsterdam, so I suppose that’s an achievement.

Expectation – The course won’t be particularly difficult

Perhaps I was a little over-confident thinking that, as a native English speaker, I’d find my course (English Literature) relatively easy. My time at the University of Helsinki as an undergraduate Erasmus student had been carefree and I was slightly concerned that I wouldn’t be academically challenged by a Masters in the Netherlands.

Reality – My Masters was just as rigorous as I’d imagine an equivalent programme in the UK to be. I didn’t have the opportunity or inclination to become complacent with my studies. Around half of my coursemates were fellow native English speakers so I also didn’t have the excuse of being the only Brit in the class.

Expectation – Brexit will loom large

Brexit seemed fairly unlikely when I accepted my place at the University of Amsterdam a few months before the referendum. Post-referendum, I was somewhat worried about the effects that Brexit would have on my time in Amsterdam.

Reality – The biggest impact of Brexit was on my bank balance. I watched in horror as the value of Sterling plummeted after the referendum, making my savings worth rather less in Euro-terms. But once I’d transferred most of my money into Euros, I no longer felt the need to check the exchange rate three times a day.

In terms of my rights as a British citizen in Europe, I had nothing to worry about back in 2016-17. By the time I left Amsterdam I was thoroughly sick of being asked my opinion on Brexit by well-meaning fellow international students, however.

Of course, a lot has changed – and is still changing – since I finished my Masters. Everything depends on whether the UK Government can agree a deal with the EU by the end of March, which is less than certain.

The Dutch Government has published its guidance on the effect of Brexit on British citizens hoping to study in the Netherlands. If a deal is reached, there won’t be any changes in terms of tuition fees or student finance eligibility for UK nationals in the Netherlands until 31 December 2020. If a deal isn’t agreed, British students who move to the Netherlands after 29 March 2019 will be treated as ‘third-country nationals’, which means that their entitlement to home tuition fees and student finance will depend on the type of residence permit that they hold.

Expectation – The university library won’t stock the books I need

I had a nagging fear that the university library wouldn’t have a great selection of English-language books and I’d be forced to scour the internet for reasonably-priced editions of obscure novels.

Reality – I was pleasantly surprised by the size of the university library and there was only a handful of times where I couldn’t find a copy of a book I needed. Broadly speaking, it was comparable to the university in the UK where I did my Bachelors.

Expectation – I’ll become a die-hard Dutch football fan

I entertained slightly grand visions of adopting a Dutch club as my own, following them religiously in the Eredivisie and beyond. Ajax were too obvious a choice – the Manchester United of the Netherlands – so maybe I’d go for mid-table Utrecht FC, only 20 minutes away from Amsterdam by train.

Reality – This spurious plan never really got off the ground. The glitz and glamour of Ajax proved too much of a temptation and I never attended an Utrecht game. I did, however, go to several matches at the Amsterdam ArenA, watching Ajax dismantle various Eredivisie teams and de Oranje falter against Italy.

Expectation – The Dutch education system will be very student-centric

When I was researching where to study my Masters, I had the impression that higher education in the Netherlands followed a fairly non-hierarchical model, with plenty of input from students and relaxed relationships with lecturers.

Reality – My expectations weren’t too far from reality. I found all my lecturers very approachable (just as they’d been back in the UK), and seminars involved plenty of discussion – not just our teacher talking at us for 90 minutes. In one module, we were asked to form groups and teach a novel of our choice each week, which was certainly an experience.

Expectation – I won’t make many Dutch friends

Another expectation influenced by my time in Helsinki, where I didn’t make a great deal of Finnish friends. In hindsight, this was probably down to me being stuck in the infamous Erasmus bubble.

Reality – I actually made quite a few Dutch friends in Amsterdam. Between me and my flatmates (also international postgraduates), we ended up building a sizeable Dutch network through our courses and mutual acquaintances. My Dutch pals gave me a unique insight into their culture, including the raucous Konigsdag (King’s Day) national holiday, some questionable New Year’s Eve rituals and surprisingly tasty local cuisine.

What my experiences taught me

It’s easy to take a set of assumptions with you when you move to a new country to study, but it’s important not to let them affect your time abroad.

I found that once I’d arrived in Amsterdam, any nagging worries I had about the course, facilities or my social life melted away. Of course, I didn’t become a proficient city cyclist straight away but practice made perfect. And the same goes for life in general as an international postgraduate.

Editor's note: This blog was first published on 26/04/18. We've checked and updated it for current readers.

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