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Deans celebrate ten years Honours Academy: ‘We are educating people who can make a difference’ 

The Honours Academy celebrates its tenth anniversary. How did the institute develop over time, and what are aspirations for the future? We speak with the current Dean and a predecessor who was there at the Academy's founding. A conversation about identity, inspiration, and impact ensues. ‘It is about the building blocks we can give people.’

Two deans, two different eras. Today they meet for the first time at the Old Observatory’s library. The Old Observatory has been home to the Honours Academy since its establishment. A deliberate choice, says then-dean Willemien den Ouden. ‘It is such a beautiful location! And it is not a building one associates with any one faculty. Here we can bring students together.’ 

And so it happened; the Old Observatory became the home base of the interfaculty institute, which was created with efforts of former Education Director Chris de Kruif and vice-rector Simone Buitendijk, amongst others. The promise of small-scale education for motivated students captivated Den Ouden. ‘As a lecturer you choose this kind of education. For students it is an additional challenge. This leads to a kind of commitment. That was a very fun and challenging thought.’ 

Willemien den Ouden works as state council in the Department of Administrative Law of the Raad van State and is professor of State and Administrative Law at Leiden University. She was dean of the Honours Academy from 2012 to 2016.

The magic word

The foundation was partly prompted by the ministry’s wishes, Den Ouden explains. Dutch universities were encouraged to facilitate interdisciplinary education for students who excelled. Leiden was off to a flying start. ‘We already had some experience regarding this kind of education, for instance with Pre-University for talented secondary school students. Lecturers from every faculty were enthusiastic about that, so it was a good starting point.’ 

At the time, honours education was meant to focus on ‘outstanding’ students. ‘Excellence was the ministry’s magic word’, Den Ouden elaborates. ‘I realised that it soon started to develop a focus on societal impact. Students who feel drawn to this kind of education are often very committed. They aspire to make a change. This energised us; we are educating people who can make a difference going forward.’ 

‘We merely use grades to help determine: could you do it?’ 

Recipe for success

Jacobijn Gussekloo, professor of Primary Care and current dean of the Honours Academy, shares that feeling. According to her, honours students aim to do more than just ‘cv building’. Instead, they wish to truly dedicate themselves to something. ‘You must be daring enough to say “I will do that”. And then, when you enter this building, we'll make sure you make the most of it!’ 

In recent years, societal impact has been playing a more prominent role in honours education. In addition to the existing PRE-College & Classes, Honours College, and Leiden Leadership Programme (LLP), new programmes came into being, such as the LDE Bachelor Honours Programme Sustainability and the Master Honours Challenges, in which students tackle concrete issues of organisations. The PRE Den Haag programme encourages secondary school students to delve into challenges on a local level. 

Jacobijn Gussekloo is professor of Primary Care and has been the Honours Academy’s dean since 2022.

Similarly, impact has become a staple of the revamped LLP. Master’s students are doing a practical assignment relating to a societal theme such as well-being or diversity. ‘It has become a wonderful mix of theory and practice,’ Gussekloo says. ‘A real recipe for success.’ 

Motivation and ambition

Another recent shift is the aim to make recipes for success available to more students. For example, the LLP grew from 90 to 200 students. Gussekloo: ‘I think that’s a beautiful thing. We try to organise small-scale education on a grander scale.’ This development, started under predecessors Ton van Haaften and Jos Schaeken, she is happy to continue.

Expansion like that requires a more accessible admissions policy. ‘We choose students on motivation and ambition. I am against selection on grades, like the 8.0 GPA in the past,' says Gussekloo. ‘It is about the building blocks we can give people. We merely use grades to help determine: could you do it? Will honours not interfere with your regular study? That is worth a good conversation.’ 

Why don't you come try out a course at the Honours Academy?’  

Laboratory – or rather testing ground?

The Honours Academy uses its anniversary to self-reflect, Gussekloo adds. What are we doing and why? Sometimes questions like this lead to new insights. ‘This morning I was cycling to work, and I thought: why are we a testing ground? Maybe we are more like a laboratory; a place to experiment with education.’ Den Ouden vocalises her thoughts: ‘The laboratory is stocked and ready. Come on in and experiment. Let’s see if it works out.’ 

‘Yes, something like that!’, nodds Gussekloo. ‘Yesterday, we were at the Faculty of Science, which was fantastic. Two years from now, they want to add a new master’s programme, so we said: why don't you come try out a course at the Honours Academy?’ 

‘Oh, but that is my mission’

If she ever joins a future dean to look back on another ten years of Honours Academy, what does she hope to see? Gussekloo takes a moment to consider the question as her eyes, sparkling with mirth, skim the books in front of her. ‘I would love if we can help students bridge the gap between study and career, so they are able to contribute more as professionals to the challenges of society. Because that's what drives most people: you want to advance yourself, but also contribute to society as a whole.’ 

‘You want to advance yourself, but also contribute to society’  

‘Especially students nowadays are passionate about that, I believe. What can I contribute to society? We can provide them with interdisciplinary, small-scale education and an opportunity to work with real organisations in society.’ 

Above all, honours education can get students out of their comfort zone. ‘Throughout your life, there are moments that give you an extra nudge. I hope my own children get to experience that too. That they are challenged and think ‘that’s my mission’ or ‘that’s what I am good at’. When we as the Honours Academy can offer this to so many young, talented people... I think great things will come of it.’  

100.000 EC: 10 years in numbers

Honours education is small-scale, interdisciplinary and innovative. Leiden University offers honours education to secondary school (vwo) students, bachelor’s and master’s students. 

Between 2012-2013 and 2022-2023, an impressive number of students has successfully completed an honours programme:

Which comes down to:

  • Over 8.000 honourscertificates
  • Over 100.000 EC’s earned
  • Over 3 million study hours spent

Source: annual reports of the Honours Academy 2012-2022 (in Dutch).

Text: Michiel Knoester
Translation: Lucia Langerak
Photos: Buro JP

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