ELAI database methodology

database methodology

While we consider the European Liberal Arts Initiative (ELAI) to be an ongoing and growing project, one of its fundamental features is the database of existing liberal arts programmes in Europe. We envision this database to be an up-to-date comprehensive catalogue of liberal arts initiatives in the European higher education landscape, based on solid research and a clear methodology. In this small piece we would like to shed some light on how we proceeded in compiling the database.

What data is included in the database?

Right now, the database features the following basic institutional data of existing programmes:

  • Name of the programme or institution: The official English name of the programme or institution devoted to liberal arts;
  • Location: Country and City;
  • Year established: The year when the first cohort of students was admitted into the programme;
  • Website: where possible in English;
  • Language of instruction: The primary language of (required) classes;
  • Ownership status: If a programme is run at a public or private or private institution;
  • Hosting / affiliated institution: These could be dual-degree partners abroad, a founding / mother institution, or a host university for certain programmes;
  • Comment: Here we mention important information on the focus or development of a programme, e.g. historical names.

So far, this is the data that you can access on our website. We will broaden the database given time, with information on curricula, student fees, cohort sizes of programmes, specific contact information, the founders, closed and forthcoming programs, et cetera.

Where did we get the data from?

Before we started our database, there have been a few lists around that presented different numbers and institutions for liberal arts in Europe. These lists differ in many important dimensions: from inclusion criteria (or lack thereof), through subcategories and programmes included, to purpose (academic research or institutional promotion). Only 11 European liberal arts programmes were mentioned by the three most comprehensive lists, which raises questions of reliability. Most importantly, other lists of are not regularly updated, with the latest dating back to 2013.

Building upon these list, and expanding through programmes we knew personally, we curated the ELAI database through a precise desk research that included two phases. First, we reviewed and expanded a provisional database based on internet resources available. Second, we got in touch with each of over 80 institutions to confirm our findings.

We include institutions on a basis of self-description: As soon as a programme calls itself liberal arts or liberal arts and sciences, and especially, when an institution offers a degree in liberal arts, we integrate it into our database. It should be noted that even if the degree is not officially called “liberal arts” (or vernacular translation), it might still count as liberal arts due to limitations in how universities are allowed to fashion their degree names in different European countries. Self-description approach was the best way we could conceive to review an international higher education phenomenon, but is not without limitations that can hopefully inspire further research (for example on curricular, pedagogical, or philosophical features of liberal education in contemporary Europe - that might yield a plethora of inclusion/exclusion boundaries depending on criteria used).

How did we decide on the typology?

Although we decided to operate on a broad definition of liberal arts, it became clear to us that we needed some sort of typology to differentiate broadly different institutional settings in which liberal arts in Europe takes place. As the typology is presented again below, some important lines of demarcation for us were:

  • Do the institutions award undergraduate degrees in liberal arts (1.a, 1.b, 2.a, 2.b.) or not (3.a)?
  • Are the institutions accredited in Europe (1.a, 2.a, 2.b, 3.a.) or elsewhere (US) (1.b)?
  • Are we looking at a private (1.a, 1.b.) or public liberal arts institution (2.a, 2.b)?
  • Are the programmes offered by financially and functionally autonomous units (“colleges”) of public university with own staff (2.a) or are they located in established public university, where the liberal arts programme of study is one among other (disciplinary degree) programmes (2.b)?

We decided to identify five different categories of liberal education initiatives in Europe:

Private independent liberal arts institutions (1.a)
Independent small size European college / university; normally awarding a degree in liberal arts; private

Private American institutions (1.b)
Institution operating according to American ideas and organisational models, even if not a branch; located in major cities throughout the continent; private

Public University Colleges (2.a)
University College offering B.A./B.Sc. in liberal arts; offered by financially and functionally autonomous units (“colleges”), with public universities accrediting the programme (mostly NL)

Public liberal arts programmes (2.b)
B.A./B.Sc. in liberal arts, offered by an established public university, where the liberal arts programme of study is one among other (disciplinary degree) programmes (mostly UK)

Liberal arts inspired curricular innovations (3.a)
Institutions promoting curricular innovations (core curriculum, elective principle, academic skills etc.) directly inspired by liberal arts ideals; offered within ‘regular’ university degree structures or faculties; public or private

Challenges and limitations of our approach

Our approach to a comprehensive and up-to-date database spotted few tough cases. Institutional history, limitations of higher education policy in particular country, or language barrier and lack of information might typically lead to classification problems. While we had to make a call, we keep the questions in mind should more data become available.

It is also important to note that we cannot make judgment calls whether a particular programme really qualifies as liberal arts, simply because we do not have any criteria that have to be fulfilled by a programme to qualify as liberal arts - yet. As stated above, we have to rely on the self-description of the institutions. At the same time, we are always open to debate why we include certain programmes in our database. And, as stated below, we are more than happy if you correct us on any data we have got wrong or missed out so far.

What if I find a mistake in the data presented?

We are very much inviting comments, corrections and suggestions to our database [CONTACT US]. We did our best to include all programmes in Europe, but we certainly might have missed yours - please get in touch and we would be happy to include it. We keep this data source open to everybody, and we would keep it updated as a result of our actions and suggestions from readers.

By curating ELAI database, we believe that three goals can be achieved:

  1. launching a more impactful research on European liberal arts.
  2. creating a source of information for members of institutions who run liberal arts programmes (or consider starting one in the future). For example, ELAI can facilitate communication between programmes that fall in the same organisational type (but might not know about each other).
  3. Last but not least, if the database proves popular, it might be able to reach the awareness of potential students and serve as a handy tool to explore the various options of studying liberal arts in Europe.

This way, it is our hope that ELAI database proves a useful resource for the liberal arts community in Europe - and throughout the world.

Daniel & Tim
Last updated: 01.11.2017

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