Uit de interculturele hoek…
Competition and Selection

Vincent Merk“But if there is no selection to get admitted, what is this study program worth?”, someone suggested recently at an international forum on academic matters. Quite shocking in the Netherlands… Indeed, this point of view is typical of cultures in which competition, selection and individual rewards are quite common. France and its Grandes Ecoles system is a striking illustration of this. Although it is based on meritocracy, it also favours children from well-off family backgrounds who are streamlined to pass the competitive exams (concours). Belgium also has a more elitist education environment where it’s sometimes more important where you studied than what you studied. Or take the USA as a similar example: I remember from my time as a senior in high-school (long ago…) the permanent competition there was among students to win titles like “Best sportsman/ woman”, “Best student” (straight As grades), or “Best whatever”. Personal pride… I won the title for “Best-Dressed Couple” with my dance partner in the Sweet Heart Swing event that year. Also in business, the reward for the best sales performance is individualized and highlighted publicly. John as Best Salesperson of the Year gets all the honors and an individual bonus, primarily money. So there is no doubt in this case: whether student or employee, the winner takes it all. By contrast, in more group-oriented cultures, the bonus may not be individualized so much, but first shared with the group members. They will at a later stage reward their best performer individually, but with no big public show, as this may prove embarrassing for the person in question.

Many of our international students come from highly competitive academic systems where merit, intellect, the right learning environments (but also financial aspects) form the basis for selection and competition within their educational systems. They come to the Netherlands for their studies, where, interestingly, there is no competitive, but rather an egalitarian mentality, especially in education. The famous “6jes-cultuur” (achieving a pass but no more than that), although somehow stereotyped, is proof of that. However, more selection and more competition have recently been introduced on Dutch campuses in the form of various honor’s programs or university colleges, where individual excellence is encouraged and rewarded. Some (technical) universities have plans to fix a maximum number of students in certain disciplines, which may result in selecting the best students out of the larger group of applicants. Cultural influences and the globalization of education are having an impact on the traditional non-competitive Dutch school system. Let’s hope it will not drastically increase competition among students (not our cup of tea here), but rather develop into “coopetition” in the international classroom, the best learning environment in educating future  international professionals around our campuses in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Vincent Merk – v.merk (at) tue (dot) nl,
trainer intercultural communication at University of Technology, Eindhoven