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A Broader Mind: a building block for VU Amsterdam

Programme director Govert Buijs explains how students and staff shape the future of education

An opportunity for students to broaden their horizons, to study issues from various perspectives, to promote societal awareness and to encourage personal development: VU Amsterdam had long been searching for such a valuable addition to the curriculum but the solution always seemed out of reach. Until 2016, when Govert Buijs, Professor of Societal and Economic Innovation at the university, was asked to explore this ambition and come up with a practical approach. That process resulted in the Broader Mind Course.

At VU Amsterdam you don’t become something, you become someone. 'With that one sentence, Mirjam van Praag, President of VU Amsterdam’s Executive Board, captured the essence of the ideology behind A Broader Mind,' Professor Buijs reflects. As one of the architects of A Broader Mind at VU Amsterdam, he explains, 'VU Amsterdam encourages students, academics and professionals to be broad minded: to widen their academic skill set, work on their personal development and get to grips with what is going on in society. These are the ideals that gave birth to the Broader Mind Course, an initiative for and by students.' The course was launched in 2018 as a pilot with a small group of students, but soon spread like wildfire across the university.

Relevant themes

Relevance was considered vital and so groups of students were encouraged to talk about the issues they were facing and what they believed the themes of the Broader Mind Course should be. 'If you want to inspire students, you first need to find out what matters to them. This is what brought us to the themes of Success & Failure, Poverty, Human Body, Rebellion, Viewpoints & Worldview, Health & Happiness, Digital World and Sustainability.'

Course participants can choose one of two tracks (and can opt for a different track in another year). Each track consists of four themes. These are approached in terms of both a personal question and a societal challenge, and every theme is studied from a range of scientific perspectives. VU Amsterdam students can then continue working on their societal challenges in one of the many Community Service Learning Modules offered by the university. Staff at VU Amsterdam have contributed their expertise in all kinds of ways. A key element of the course is that students from various faculties work together on the themes. This makes for a truly interdisciplinary meeting place.

Personal development

'This process teaches you to look beyond the boundaries of your own discipline and study societal issues from various perspectives, which is not only important for your personal development, but also a useful tool for students entering the job market. After all, job situations require you to look at the bigger picture too. Students also have the chance to shape the contents of their own course. As members of the building team, they play a role in developing education at VU Amsterdam.'

The Broader Mind Course is of added value both to VU Amsterdam as an institution and to the development of its students. 'The importance of A Broader Mind, and, by extension the Broader Mind Course, is increasingly becoming part of the fabric of the university. A wonderful development! In time, I hope prospective students will come to see the Broader Mind Course as an extra reason for coming to study at VU Amsterdam. Knowledge can become outdated, but the ability to use what you know and bring it to bear in a social or work situation, is of genuine and lasting value.'

Govert Buijs