Updated: Apr 8, 2021
We interviewed Alessandro Veneri, a second-year EPS student currently completing the Double Degree Programme at UCL, Université Catholique de Louvain.
Thank you for speaking with us today Alessandro. Could you share with us some of the reasons why you decided to pursue the Double Degree in UC Louvain?
It is my pleasure. I chose Université Catholique de Louvain because I wanted to write a thesis in social choice theory and Belgium has a great research tradition in the field, K. Arrow even referred to it as the social choice “Belgian school” at some point.
The additional reason why I decided to apply is that it fits particularly well with my overall academic journey. I have a background in philosophy and transitioned to economics with a bachelor thesis on the ethical underpinnings of the social discount rate. The EPS program allowed me to gradually approach the new subject, while at Louvain I am completing my master’s studies with a focus on research, a year of intense training in economics.
Your journey is really interesting. Are there any courses that you have enjoyed most and that have helped you to focus on research?
You can choose between two tracks in the Double Degree: the professional and the research track. I chose the latter, and for that reason most of my courses are oriented towards research. In the first semester I have attended Dynamical methods, Advanced Macroeconomics I, Ethics and Social choice, and a French language class.
I recommend taking Dynamical Methods to build the mathematical tools needed to do macroeconomics, such as difference and differential equations, dynamic programming, and numerical methods. A downside of the course is that it is very concentrated and requires mostly individual work. I liked Ethics and Social Choice very much, given my philosophy background and my interest in the course. Professor Maniquet is a great teacher, he infuses his passion for the subject. The course alternated between lectures and student presentations and has been quite dynamic, even despite the pandemic. Advanced Macroeconomics I is a standard course that introduces students to the main macroeconomics workhorse models. For a UniMi student, it is a perfect segue into more advanced macroeconomics topics after having taken the EPS macro course. It also introduces students to Dynare.
In the second semester, I am looking forward to the Advanced Econometrics course, as it promises to lay the theoretical foundations of the field’s most basic concepts, such as linear regression, convergence, and likelihood. Professor Van Bellegem has a strong mathematical background and is very keen on stressing the formal aspects of econometric concepts, which I think is very valuable to understand what’s under the hood of statistical software machinery, and to build your own model. The Advanced Macroeconomics II course looks at heterogeneous agents models, which are needed for anyone who wants to deal with inequalities in a macro context (this is just a small example).
The Research Seminar in Microeconomics consists in attending faculty seminars and writing short referee reports. It is an approach that cannot be found even in the other available research seminars, and it offers a valuable glimpse at what actual research activity looks like. The course focuses on microeconomics, so the student has to have that kind of interest.
Thank you for the exhaustive overview of these courses, Alessandro! More generally, how would you evaluate the teaching quality? Are there major differences compared to the Unimi teaching methods?
I think that the teaching quality in Louvain is quite high, professors display great knowledge of their subject and are generally very willing to help students along the way. The greatest difference with respect to Unimi is the extensive use of student presentations and problem set solving. Student presentations take lots of individual work and deeply engage the student with the material, besides requiring him to explain it in a clear way to an audience unfamiliar with the specific point made in the chosen paper. Problem sets are particularly useful to cement the analytic points and offer adequate preparation for the final exam. The difference in class size (at least half with respect to Unimi) helps to foster interaction and greater attention to specific points raised in class.
Could you tell us something about the main services provided by the University?
The University offers several housing options (single room in a shared flat, single room with kitchenette and shower, studio), giving great priority to foreign master’s students. It also has several sport facilities with countless activities: gym, swimming pool, team sports, tennis courts, you name it. As for libraries, the University has many of them, all of which are well-equipped. Several university facilities, e.g. where classes are held, also have some spaces for group work and individual study.
How about the city life? Has it been affected by the pandemic?
Louvain la Neuve is a small town, built in the 1970s after the ancient Catholic University of Louvain split along the Belgian linguistic fault. Unfortunately, the pandemic has greatly affected the city life, starting from October 2020 bars and restaurants have all been shut down to contrast the spread of the virus. In any case, half of Louvain la Neuve’s residents are students and the town reflects their presence. One of the most peculiar institutions is undoubtedly the “kot à projet”, a self-managed student residence that organises extra activities, often centred around a specific theme. Among the 130 Belgian project kots, 80 are located in Louvain la Neuve.
What I am enjoying the most is the quiet atmosphere and the countless itineraries that one can walk through around the town and its neighbourhoods. A few hundred meters from the central square there is a small lake for jogging. About twenty minutes far away, one can stroll in the woods. I truly recommend Louvain for anyone who likes a country-side atmosphere.
A habit that Belgian students seem to have is that of buying beer in large quantities and partying any day of the week –which can be annoying if you live next to a noisy kot à projet and you’d like to go to sleep early.
Has the pandemic affected also the university teaching?
The programme has mostly been affected by the switch to remote teaching. Overall, in-presence teaching has been limited to four weeks total at the moment until February. January exams were mostly held in presence, which at least allowed a brief return on campus.
For personal reasons, I am following classes remotely from Italy. The pandemic has undoubtedly greatly reduced the opportunity to benefit from studying and living in a new environment, making it more difficult to meet new people and participate in university life.
I am really sorry to hear that. In any case, would you say you experienced a cultural shock during your stay?
I did not experience a shocking transition after moving to Belgium – we’re still in Europe after all! As an Italian citizen, I also think that living in the French-speaking part of the country might close the gap even further. Speaking French is useful, not every shop keeper knows English very well. This may be a challenge for some, and the University offers excellent beginners’ courses.
In general, what would you say about the pros and cons of your experience?
Starting with the advantages, I think that the biggest benefit one can draw from the Double Degree Programme is the research track, which provides a specificity in economics training that cannot be achieved with the EPS programme alone. The research focus is particularly valuable if you are considering applying for a Ph.D. Another plus is the overall study plan, which requires the student to take at least eight courses in Belgium, besides the final dissertation. This allows to take on a great variety of courses and broaden the overall perspective on the field.
Turning to the disadvantages: the course load is certainly more demanding than UniMi’s, especially the second semester that –independently of your planning– will require you to attend at least three courses and give the relative exams in June, all the while writing the master’s dissertation. This may require you to pay less attention to the dissertation than you’d like. Yet coping with the pressure surely enhances your prioritisation and time-management skills (and thereby adds a pro to the aforementioned advantages).
Alessandro, I thank you so much for your time. We have reached our last question. Do you think this experience will have a major impact on your future career?
Career-wise, I think that the double degree programme in Louvain la Neuve can offer several competitive advantages. Université Catholique de Louvain is a renowned institution in economics, and UniMi students at the end of the journey will benefit from an (additional) international degree. The research track training is going to be particularly valuable for Ph.D. applications, a possibility that I am carefully considering in the immediate future.
For more information about the Double Degree Programme click here.
We sincerely thank Alessandro Veneri for the time dedicated to this interview.