BIDS Alumni Spotlight Special: New Years Edition – BIDS’ Founding Fathers speak up

library1Did you just spend the holidays with your family, and have been tired explaining to them what is it you are (or have been) actually studying and more importantly, “what you will become?” Worry not, because now we are going to present to you the underlying foundation of our studies; in the words of the Founding Fathers of BIDS, Yahia Mahmoud, Tobias Axelsson, and Axel Fredholm.

Yahia MahmoudTobias AxelssonAxel Fredholm


Celebrating the 350th Anniversary of Lund University, we thought it was about time to dig deeper in one of LU’s newer social science programs: The Bachelor of Science in Development Studies, colloquially known as ‘The BIDS’. We have met with the initiators of this program in order to have a better understanding and flourished into what is today an international program with more than 1500 applicants each year competing for less than 100 spots.

A short introduction to BIDS history

BIDS is a fairly new program but it has surprisingly long history behind it. With connections to past programs at Lund University, one of which were already present in the 1970’s. All of the founding fathers have past history of themselves being students from Lund University, which brings to mind fun images of our lecturers (past, present or future) awkwardly meeting in front of coffee machines (if they had them back then) striking up random conversations. To only now, several years later working together again, at the place where it all began. We interviewers hope that this embellished piece of history serves as a reminder to be kind to all the people you meet during your studies, they very well might end up to be your future colleagues.

How it all started

Lund University has been offering programs in development studies since the 1970s, although only in Swedish on bachelor’s level. “We asked ourselves: Why don’t we do something in English?”, Tobias expresses, and continues: “We had several development-related courses in each discipline and even taught in these; however, there was no formalized collaboration”.
Aiming to draw from each discipline’s expertise, the colleagues Yahia, Axel and Tobias started in late 2007 to develop an English bachelor in development studies alongside with their colleague Magnus Jirström. After a longer validation process, the program was enrolled in the summer of 2008 and turned out to be a grand success: More than 5000 applications.

But why in English?

As Tobias explains: “The discipline as such is very international. Apart from the obvious aim to get students used to working in English, it is also related to internationalization: An English-speaking program would hopefully attract international students and thus make the batch as diverse as possible, which would benefit the program. We did not want to be so insular, instead strived for an international outlook.” And Yahia adds: “It was all about opening doors for international students, as well as making students of development studies able to interact academically in an international environment”.

How come BIDS subsides of the four majors?

The formation of the BIDS program is a reflection of the departments that previously had a history of offering courses and doing research around the topic of development “the research reality” of the university as Yahia so aptly called it. Part of the program was also inspired by the Lumid master’s program offered at Lund, as Yahia said during our interview: “We thought of BIDS as a possible sibling to the Lumid”. There was also inspiration to the program foundation found in studying similar concepts in countries such as, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK.

The future after BIDS

Many students have concerns about the employability of the BIDS program. And the founding fathers believe that we are good prospects ahead of us, or at least the same as any other bachelor programme within the social sciences. As many know, today’s labour market is very demanding in regards to what they require from their employees. And often require master’s degrees and past work experience, a reality that Axel stresses, that students should be aware about. However we should not forget that during the initial formation period for the BIDS program potential employers, such as NGOs, private actors such as consultancy firms and national development agencies were interviewed as a part of the validation process. Of the different groups contacted Yahia revealed:“In general over 90% were very positive” and if you are interested in the particulars of that report NGOs gave the most positive response as Axel said: “many felt that graduates could be employed after finishing the programme.” But also as as Tobias Axelsson said: “it speaks for itself” each year the BIDS programme receives over 1500 applicants from all over the world in which some of its students move on to other established universities internationally, such as imperial college and Hopkins university. As Yahia so wisely put it: “We are not giving students skills to do accounting, but that is not what is lacking out there. We need people who can integrate the political, social and cultural dimensions of development”.

The BIDS programme is very popular today, has it always been this way?

Before a new program can be approved a lot of feasibility reports have to be conducted and other bureaucratic measures and feedback loops take place. Even so predicting a the popularity of a program can be hard to foresee. That the BIDS program would turn up this successful came as a surprise, at least to Tobias: “I don’t think we really had an idea. Of course we knew Lumid, that on a master’s level was very attractive” rather: “The program has had it’s own life for making itself popular”. During its first year the BIDS program received over 5000 applications in which Yahia Mahmoud was intimately involved in the vetting process, an experience he recollects has: “extremely tough”. Being forced to distinguish genuine prospective students from visa scheme applicants sent from shady organisations. On top of having to evaluate different grade scales and education systems was a long and tiring process.

Internally from the university, the response was mostly positive, there was a drive from vice chancellor to expand the social sciences. We had to compete with other prospective new program and also sometimes face, vocal negative responses from people in other programs. Who did not understand the need for something like BIDS or even think that we would be able to attract a sufficient amount of students, but here we are. As time moves along the program is becoming increasingly important attracting very active student, students by nature attracted to global issues. As Yahia also said: “I think it will continue going in the right way. What we are offering here is definitely needed, definitely very timely. I see no reasons to be worried about disappearing”.

About the BIDS students
“When you are a BIDS student you belong to the elite” (Yahia Mahmoud)

“The ones who get in, are the few amongst the 1500 who applied, so it speaks for itself, they are skilled, they have a plan for their life and are prepared to work to pursue it. We have a lot of international students but even our Swedish students have an international mindset” as said by Tobias.

What BIDS teaches the students
As Stefan Lindberg once said: “You all have heart. But we want to give you brain and reason.” and as Tobias put it: BIDS gives you the analytical tools, the social science toolbox to deal with development issues.

Holistic thinking:
Both Tobias and Yahia agreed: that the BIDS program give students the capacity, to not only analyse but also see things from different angles. And have a critical way of analyze the social, political and economical events that are happening at the global level. This understanding of complexity and critical thinking is seen in their written assignments.

Build relations:
“They acquire social, global and cultural skills in the three years by being around a diverse group at all times..The nervous first years graduate in third year as ‘brothers and sisters’. We are born into a world with very special rules, that we didn’t decide upon, or even approve of them but we have grown with them. They unfortunately enforce many stereotypes but spending 3 years with people from all over the world, lets you smash down many of the stereotypes” a sentiment conveyed by Yahia.

What are the weaknesses and strengths of the program?

“The weakness is that we despite all these years have not found a strong economic base for the program and thus not be able to fulfill the student’s’ requirement for more lectures. The strength of the BIDS program, are when I at the end of the day realize how many students which are actually able to make it to the end. We are doing very good in that sense; compared to other programs, many students graduate the BIDS.”

“The weakness is the difficulty of coordination: the goal that teachers from all of the disciplines should participate in every course makes coordination difficult. Furthermore, the number of students on the program makes it difficult to organise seminars and to get to know every student. The strength is the general skill level among students – BIDS students are usually very skilled at the outset. This makes it easier to establish an advanced level of communication in class.”

“I would dare to say that BIDS’ weakness and strength are the same ones actually: On the one hand, the strength is that we have this holistic diversity in the program. On the other, that makes it a little bit of a weakness because it can be seen as unclear ‘where am I heading with this’ from student point of view. I don’t think it’s so much of a weakness once you’re out of the program, but while you’re in the program students can be a bit lost. That sums it up: The real strength of BIDS is its multidisciplinary, you get lots of different perspectives from different departments, but that it could sometimes be seen as a bit ‘wishy-washy’ and you don’t have time go to in-depth with things. But in that context, I think it wouldn’t be BIDS, it wouldn’t be ‘development studies’!”

Do you have some advice for future BIDS students as well as graduates?

“Remember that there is a life outside of academia – try to gather working experience while studying since this will increase your chances in the labour market after graduation. If you intend to go for an internship or a fieldwork during the final semester – try to schedule this in advance, preferably in the beginning of semester 4.”

“Look at BIDS as a stepping stone, it gives you all the tools, the foundation, then it’s what you make of it. Seize the opportunities when they appear, BIDS is a way in, but it’s definitely not the end.”

“Think openly about the program, development studies is not only limited to being in the jungle or in villages in Africa etc, you can work with development studies in Sweden or other developed countries as well. The issues of development can be dealt with everywhere. ‘Be open to what you can do with the program!’”

Interviews conducted by Cecilia Akanga, Jessica Iyer and Clara Nepper Winther,
All current students of the BIDS program.

2 thoughts on “BIDS Alumni Spotlight Special: New Years Edition – BIDS’ Founding Fathers speak up

  1. Yannick says:

    This is such a nice interview for prospective students as it captures the essence of BIDS very well, I think. Also, it’s just great to hear from these legendary teachers again 🙂

    • Kia says:

      Hey there, only read this now but completely agree with Yannick. A very nice interview, and it’s great to read something about BIDS and hear the voice of the professors after a while 🙂 Hope you keep it up!

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