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The Master’s degree programmes Mathematics and Stochastics and Financial Mathematics (SFM) offered by the University of Amsterdam and VU University Amsterdam have been collaborating for years. Programme directors Bob Rink (VU) and Lenny Taelman (UvA) coordinate all substantive and organisational elements of the programmes together. ‘Actually, the only things we do separately are the administrative and financial aspects.’

Bob Rink (left, photo: Sarah Duisters) and Lenny Taelman (photo: Dirk Gillissen)

Lenny Taelman and Bob Rink find it difficult to pinpoint exactly for how long the programmes have been offered jointly. ‘Certainly much longer than the two years that I have been programme director,’ says Taelman. ‘Yes, I think it must be around 15 years,’ adds Rink. The Stochastics and Financial Mathematics Master’s programme was set up jointly, while the Mathematics Master’s programmes slowly grew towards each other. For the latter, the universities offer three specialisations together. The department at the UvA is stronger in Algebra & Geometry, while VU Amsterdam is stronger in Analysis & Dynamic Systems; for Stochastics it’s about an even 50/50. ‘And indeed, those students travel between locations the most,’ says Rink.

Joining forces

The collaboration was a logical development when, around the year 2000, the number of mathematics students in the Netherlands was at a historical low point. The UvA and VU Amsterdam were not the only ones to join forces at that time: all mathematics Master’s programmes in the Netherlands started to offer courses together, accessible to each other’s students, in the national MasterMath programme.

Broadest range of courses

‘I myself was one of these very few students at that time, and I get really envious when I see all the courses that students can take nowadays,’ says Taelman. Since then, the MasterMath scheme has grown to include over 40 courses, many of which are taught in Amsterdam. That is one of the biggest advantages of the collaboration between the UvA and VU Amsterdam: ‘Together we can offer students a broad range of courses locally, more comprehensive than anywhere else in the country,’ says Rink.

However, the broad range of available courses also has a downside. Students can now choose from so many subjects that they hardly need to meet each other. ‘But we do feel it is important that a sense of community exists among our students,’ says Taelman with regard to this issue. This is one reason why the programmes began the year with a communal barbecue. Probably more important: a compulsory joint seminar has been set up for each specialisation, and the students themselves have to work together to organise the seminar and keep it going.

No sense of 'home' or 'away'

The students generally do not have a sense of playing a ‘home’ or ‘away’ game. ‘Maybe the historical difference between UvA and VU Amsterdam plays a role for some Dutch students, or if they have specifically selected one or the other university because of their specialisation, but for international students the distinction between UvA and VU Amsterdam is fairly meaningless,’ Rink observes.

Lecturers, too, barely notice the difference. ‘If I ask colleagues about the difference between students from the UvA and VU University Amsterdam, they always say that they do not really know which students are enrolled at which university,’ continues Rink. They are also happy to help each other out for thesis supervision. As Taelman explains: ‘To give one example, I recently received a request from a student, but I was fully booked. Luckily, a VU colleague was more than willing to supervise the student in question.’