Leiden rector Carel Stolker is chairman of the steering committee of LDE, a partnership between the universities of Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam. EM and Stolker talk about the partnership, how it is working out and what challenges are ahead. “The centre of gravity in the partnership is between Delft and Leiden”, Stolker admits.

By Frank Nuijens (Delta) Wieneke Gunneweg (Erasmus Magazine) Photography Marcel Krijger

Where are things running most smoothly at the moment?

“I would say at the personal level – the interaction between the administrators. We trust one another, and we’ve really grown fond of one another.”

Have mutual expectations changed over the course of the partnership?

“At one point, there was talk of a merger. But we’ve left that for what it is. It’s a strategic alliance. Within this alliance, we focus on substantive matters: education and research. The emphasis is on research more than anything.”

What has the partnership brought so far in terms of results?

“We teamed up to get the proton clinic off the ground. An initiative like that would have been far too expensive for a university to realise on its own. Physical infrastructure promises to become a critical success factor for universities – particularly at the interface of physical sciences and medical. The dean of Medicine in Leiden has noted that as soon as a package with some new device comes in, his staff start talking about which technology will be succeeding it. The only way you can stay part of new developments is through collaboration.”

The three universities have been working together for some time now in the Medical Delta. Are they still benefiting from this expanded collaboration?

“In Leiden, we have particular groups within the social sciences that focus on behaviour and health – the fields of prevention and eHealth, for example. And vice versa, you can also find physicists and biologists in the halls of the LUMC. This broader partnership in Leiden is a direct result of the LUMC Medical Delta.”

In many cases, researchers working within the same university aren’t even aware of each other. Isn’t looking around at two other institutions a bridge too far?

“What you see is that a partnership has an organising effect at local faculties. But nothing is more difficult than changing an institution’s culture. You shouldn’t force people; you need to convince them. Scientists are driven and seduced by scientific questions and scientific success – that’s an approach that works.”

Right now, the people from Rotterdam’s Economics and Business Administration departments aren’t very involved in LDE. Is Rotterdam actually participating?

“Rotterdam is a strong contributor to the Medical Delta. But the centre of gravity in the partnership outside the Medical Delta is between Leiden and Delft. This has to do with Delft and Leiden’s longer shared history and with the strong local organisation in Rotterdam. But here in Leiden, we think in terms of centuries rather than years, so we shouldn’t conclude that the partnership with Rotterdam isn’t panning out just yet.”

Could you explain the need for LDE to scientists in a single sentence?

“Science is all about big issues like energy and the climate, security, rule of law, global economic and financial stability. By definition, solutions for issues like that need to come from multiple scientific disciplines. And if on top of that, you are already located so near to one another, there is really no excuse for not working together.”

Does government policy slow things down in the partnership?

“It’s not particularly complicated as far as research is concerned – there aren’t too many rules in that area. It is education more than anything where we come up against a mass of red tape and legislation. The location principle, CDHO (Effectiveness in Higher Education Committee, eds.), visitations, accreditations.”

Is that why collaboration in the area of education has come off to such a slow start?

“I believe so. Organising minors is complicated enough as it is within a single university – let alone between different universities. Settlement issues, blackboard problems: in a sense, everything can become a problem in education.”

How will LDE be dealing with this in the period ahead?

“I think that research will continue to be the main driver in this partnership. In cases where education itself actually calls for collaboration – as is the case with the education programmes that have already been set up – we could be seeing more of these initiatives. There are no concrete plans in this area for the moment. Delft is examining whether it’s possible to incorporate contributions from lecturers from Leiden and Rotterdam in its EPA (Engineering and Policy Analysis, eds.) degree programme. Leiden is working on a Security bachelor programme, and is examining whether this can include input from lecturers from Delft and Rotterdam.”

The hours researchers put into the partnerships come on top of their regular workload – which is quite high as it is. Should LDE reserve man-hours for these collaborations?

“This is an option if so required. We’ve put seed money into the centres so that people can explore new avenues of research. And if they find something interesting, and a subject like frugal innovations or global heritage or security is a worthwhile addition to our existing palette, I hope the researchers in question will start shifting their focus. This partnership needs to touch the very heart of our universities; change things at that level. If after a few years, we still don’t have any results like that in our education or research, we should cancel these centres.”

We are in the middle of a recalibration. How many of the current eight centres will be remaining?

“We don’t know yet. At some centres, various research proposals have already been awarded European or NWO funding.”

Could we be seeing more centres in the future?

“Yes, we will maintain room for this. Big Data, for example, is a topical issue at all three universities.”

Will the recalibration have positive results?

“We will definitely be continuing this alliance. As a team, our three institutions get so many new opportunities – there’s no way we would call it quits.”

Would it also mean extra funding?

“Yes, we will have to arrange that too.”

What keeps you up at night?

“I’m concerned that right now, the debate in the Netherlands now seems to be focusing exclusively on student participation. There is tremendous polarisation due to the events in Amsterdam. I get the feeling the Minister is driving a wedge between the executive boards and the students and participation bodies. Even though at most universities, the two enjoy excellent relations. This issue demands a lot of attention. We need to realise that universities are more than just education institutions. Research is crucial for universities.”

What do you think the Minister should do?

“Trust people. And quit using performance agreements as a policy instrument. To a large extent, this is why there are so many fixed-term contracts. If you know you won’t be fulfilling your performance agreements, and will be getting cut by fifteen million, you’re inclined to offer people a temporary contract.”