“It’s survival of the fittest,” says Rik Leenknegt when asked about the selection process at Howest – short for Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen, the University College of West Flanders – in Belgium. That’s a bold claim from a game lecturer at an institution which is looking to increase its numbers of students from abroad.
As the academic director of the Digital Arts and Entertainment curriculum, Leenknegt is responsible for hundreds of undergraduates who aspire to get a job in the game industry. And with a relatively low entry requirement – students from the UK need the equivalent of two A-levels to pass muster – he must quickly whittle down the intake to those most keen to work in games.
“Since we are funded by the Belgian government we don’t have the luxury other universities enjoy of being able to refuse people, so our selection process is the first year of the course,” he explains. “We ask students: ‘Can you keep up with the pressure?’”
If that doesn’t sound like your typical university experience, it’s not meant to. There is something of a boot camp feel to Howest’s game course, in the first year at least, explains Leenknegt. “We try to kick them as hard as they can in their studies so they are used to it. We focus on working attitude and work ethic. They must be willing to sacrifice certain things to get the quality and hit the deadline. From day one we stack them with deadlines and projects. They are limited in their resources, but have to do as well as they can.”
Leenknegt is keen to stress that students – especially those travelling from overseas – are counselled on their choice before signing up for the course. He even helps those looking for more specialist courses to find an alternative university.
But the intense approach saved for those who are taken on seems to be paying off. Howest has a track record of producing graduates who get jobs with the likes of Crytek, DICE and Splash Damage. And the introduction two years ago of an English-language course is proving attractive to aspiring game developers from outside Belgium. There are now 35 international students on the three-year Digital Arts and Entertainment bachelor programme, hailing from as far afield as Canada and Israel.
Among the united nations of 15 different countries represented on the course, four students are from the UK. They pay just under €1,600 for their tuition, which is some way short of the £9,000 per year some UK universities charge. Among them is Mark Ojar, from Basingstoke in Hampshire, who is four months into his first year at Howest.
“I’m so busy I feel like I have a baby to look after,” he says. “The course is a lot faster than I thought it was going to be. They open your eyes to every aspect of development and it’s full-on assignments every week for every single class. You need really good organisation skills.”
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