Learning from similarities and differences: Reflections on a trip to Maastricht University

By Christopher Huggins

In February 2023 I had the privilege of visiting FASoS at Maastricht University as part of an (Covid-19 delayed) Erasmus+ staff mobility.

The University of Suffolk (my home institution) and Maastricht University are very different. Suffolk is a relatively new university in the UK (receiving its independent charter in 2016) while Maastricht is more established. Being relatively young, Suffolk is small in both students and staff, while Maastricht is much larger. The nature of the student body is also different. While Suffolk predominately serves a local and regional student market (with only a handful of international students), Maastricht’s students are truly international in character.

However, Maastricht was interesting to me for two reasons. First was its reputation as a pioneer of problem-based learning (PBL). On paper at least, PBL should be well suited to the smaller group teaching we tend to do at Suffolk. I had read a lot about it, but was interested to see how it worked in practice and how it could be applied at my own institution. Second, at Suffolk we recently made a move to what we call “block learning”, where students intensively study a single module/course at a time, rather than three or four modules concurrently as is the norm in UK higher education. A form of this model has long been adopted at Maastricht, and many other universities, but it is relatively novel in the UK so I was keen to see what I lessons I could bring back from a place that’s doing it for a long time. My logic was I would be able to learn something new about both PBL and block learning from seeing how they worked in a very different context. Indeed, the greater the difference, my logic went, the more potential for learning there would be.

However, while there were certainly plenty of differences which led to some great learning opportunities, I was mostly struck by the remarkable number of similarities in terms of the challenges we face. Working in a political context where the value of international students is questioned; increasingly interventionist and overbearing government regulation of higher education; complaints of ever-increasing workload, bureaucracy and administration; concerns over student engagement, attendance and resilience; opportunities for staff reward, recognition and promotion; even debates about how much teaching lecturers do and the length of the academic year. These are all familiar features of UK (or at least English) higher education. Yet they consistently came up during discussions at Maastricht too. In some respects, rather than learning something new I simply found much the same. But it does show that with so much in common, even across international borders, we are not alone as educators and that there is much to be learned from the experiences of colleagues. This ultimately puts an onus on us to share our experiences and insights with each other.

This leads to a second observation, which is on the benefits of physically going somewhere different and seeing how things work elsewhere in person. I obviously have a strong interest in learning and teaching, but I also fundamentally believe that all the scholarship of in the world is of little use if we can’t effectively impart that knowledge to students and develop their skills to make sense of the world around them. So I try to read pedagogical writing in my field and you’ll usually find me at the learning and teaching panels of any conference. But, as valuable as these things are, they lack an experiential element. It’s all good and well getting a description of how things work elsewhere, but it’s much more useful to see how they work first-hand.

In short, seeing how learning and teaching works in a real-life setting gives us more insight than we could ever pick up in a learning and teaching workshop, a pedagogical article or a blogpost. It affords opportunities to develop an appreciation of context, to probe, ask questions and discuss details with colleagues. Observing and even leading teaching sessions also provides opportunities to speak to students, a perspective that can sometimes be overlooked when educators reflect on their learning and teaching practice. There is also something to be said for getting away from my own institution and instead immersing myself in a different context without the distractions of endless emails and meetings. Being physically elsewhere removes these distractions and ultimately offers more time for meaningful reflection.

My third observation is that this turned out to be a two-way process. I went to Maastricht to learn, and I learned a lot. But the various colleagues I spoke to at Maastricht learned something from me too. In conversations it was nice to be asked for my perspective on what I saw and how things worked in my own setting, from assessment design to staff CPD opportunities. This shows that these sorts of exchanges offer benefits to the host institution, as well as the person visiting.

Which leads to my final observation, that I was probably one of the last UK-based academics to benefit from an Erasmus+ mobility. Much has been written about the loss of opportunities to students caused by Brexit and how the UK’s replacement, Turing, fails to provide a comparable offering. But it’s also important to recognise the support Erasmus+ has given to facilitate staff mobility and exchange. For those eligible for Erasmus+ support to spend some time in another university and find out how things work, I absolutely encourage you to do it. But even without Erasmus support, there is a wider lesson for university leaders here that encouraging colleagues to learn from international colleagues is well worth the relatively small investment.

Overall I am really gratefully to all the colleagues and students at Maastricht who let me into their classroom and engaged in conversation, and I’m particularly thankful to Patrick Bijsmans for organising everything. In his own recent blogpost, Patrick made an invitation to visit Maastricht, so I make the same offer to anyone interested in visiting the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Suffolk, not least because I stand to learn as much from the experience as you will!

About the author

Christopher Huggins is Associate Professor in Politics and Associate Dean for Learning, Teaching and Student Experience in the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Suffolk. His research interests focus on the research interests are focused on sub-national politics and devolution, the role of local and regional government in European Union politics, and the UK-EU relationship, as well as the pedagogy of European Studies.