After working at the University of Groningen for 25 years, Inge Hutter assumed control of the International Institute of Social Studies, which is part of Erasmus University Rotterdam, in August 2015. At the Institute, which is located in The Hague, she is regaining her passion for foreign cultures and preparing ISS for the future. “Scientists have a duty to ensure that something is done with their research results.”

Inge Hutter has been the Rector of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) for nearly six months now. “I’m really beginning to feel at home now, and I’m getting into more of a routine,” she tells EM when she receives us in The Hague. After working at the University of Groningen for 25 years – during which time she climbed the ladder from PhD student all the way to Dean of the Faculty of Spatial Sciences – she took up the position of Rector of ISS, an institute which has been part of Erasmus University since 2009.

During her first half year in charge, Hutter made a point of talking to every single person working at ISS. She says they were the nicest conversations she has. She learned much, not just about how staff felt about their jobs, but about their personal situations.


“What struck me most is how much people here love ISS. They are passionate about what the Institute does and what it stands for.” She admits that the conversations were quite time-consuming, but insists they were very important. The Institute is fresh from extensive restructuring, which involved some of its support staff moving to Rotterdam’s Woudestein Campus. “These conversations enabled me to tell people that a new era is on its way. The restructuring is over and done with now; it’s a done deal. Now we can look towards the future and start building things.”

Building things is ISS’s mission for the next few years. The new rector is expected to present a new vision for the future. Hence our question: where will ISS be in 2020 or 2025?

Groningen idea

The anthropologist tells us her position with ISS does not differ all that much from her position of dean in Groningen. “What makes it easier is that I know exactly what goes on at universities and am familiar with the processes that take place. Many things which are currently going on at EUR, happened in Groningen, as well.”

Take, for instance, the experiment involving grants for PhD students. This was a Groningen idea which sounded interesting to ISS. Rotterdam wasn’t too keen on the idea, not least because it involves PhD students receiving less favourable terms of employment than regular PhD candidates.

ISS, on the other hand, believes that the PhD grants system is a perfect way to provide PhD students from developing countries with a steady income. Due to strict immigration laws, it is next to impossible for Dutch universities to employ students from such countries as a regular PhD candidate. “These kinds of fellowships are particularly useful for people from the southern hemisphere, as they give them a good opportunity for further development.”

Many such PhD students come to ISS with some savings of their own. The money doesn’t always suffice to make ends meet, but the Institute is not allowed to lend the students a helping hand. Thanks to the PhD student grants experiment, ISS will be able to provide up to fifteen PhD students with a steady income over the next few years. “We’re ecstatic that the proposal was passed by the university council,” says Hutter. Now all they need is for the Minister to approve the plan.

ISS does not just intend to offer grants of its own. Hutter would like to attract more foreign PhD students on grants. “I was surprised to see how many PhD students here used their own savings to get here,” she tells us. “`Foreign PhD students in Groningen tend to have grants from their own countries.” One of the challenges she looks forward to tackling over the next few years is finding such grants.

Passion for foreign cultures

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Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

ISS has 160 Master students and 100 PhD students, the majority of whom hail from Asia, Africa or South America. “Groningen calls itself an international university, as does Rotterdam. But walk into a classroom here and you’ll meet no more than two Europeans. The rest of our students are all from developing countries.”

After 25 years in Groningen, Hutter needed a change of scenery. “There were personal reasons involved, as well. My partner passed away very suddenly three years ago. When that happens, you’ll start wondering at a very basic level what you wish to do with your life while you still can.”

Ever since doing Master’s degrees in Non-Western Demographics and Cultural Anthropology in Groningen and Utrecht, respectively, she has done much research in the field of ‘sexual and reproductive health’ in Africa and India. “I wanted to give more expression to my passion for developing countries and foreign cultures. I’m seeing the same passion in the students and staff here at ISS.”

“The entire Institute is an international hotchpotch, what with nearly all our students and many of our staff being foreign. And The Hague is of course an international city.” As a result, Hutter says, ISS has a different culture. Those working at ISS like to call their Institute a mini United Nations. “Students don’t just learn from researchers and lecturers, but mainly from each other. In our courses we try to present a global citizenship concept, whereby people from different cultures interact and learn together. I envy them sometimes.”

A scientist’s duty

ISS’ scientists do a lot of research which does not have a Western focus, in association with NGOs or local authorities. “I really like that kind of research. It’s solid academic research, but with a very explicit emphasis on how it can be applied.” It takes social engagement, Hutter thinks, to tackle the kind of subjects ISS researchers tend to investigate. “If you’re researching maternal mortality in Malawi, you’re likely to be emotionally affected. So it makes sense to try and find a way to apply the outcomes of your research.”

“I’m finding it increasingly difficult to watch researchers sit in their offices and ignore society. Are their fine studies and interesting analyses really what matters to society?” In Hutter’s opinion, science is not just about generating and sharing knowledge, but about ensuring that something is being done with one’s knowledge.

She says it is a scientist’s duty to consider this responsibility. “It sounds very heavy,” she says with a smile. “And I’m not saying everyone should do it, but organisations should try and find a proper balance.”

Hutter believes that her conviction that scientific research must have a practical application stems from her upbringing. She grew up in a “family of socialist teachers” in Oosterhesselen, a small village in the province of Drenthe. “It was made clear to us that we had to benefit society, do something useful with the knowledge we had.”

Initially, she seemed on her way to becoming a PE teacher. She was a fairly good gymnast and, as a teenager in the late 1970s, opted to attend the Physical Education Academy. It seemed a logical choice, what with both of her parents, her brother and her sister all being teachers. However, the Academy’s curriculum proved insufficiently theoretically profound for her.

Foothold in The Hague

Hutter did find the profundity she was looking for in her anthropology degree, which taught her to look at and see things from various cultural perspectives. She explains that it is very important for universities to be able to see things from different perspectives. “We Dutch people have no idea how hot African, Asian and South-American countries are on our heels. Their mentality is one of ‘let’s go and do this, the future is ours.’ The international balance of power is shifting.”

And Dutch universities will feel the consequences. On the one hand, the students and PhD students of the future will be coming from these parts of the world. On the other hand, knowledge of how those countries work and how they are changing will increasingly be held by the countries themselves.

This is why Hutter feels that ISS could play an important part within Erasmus University. After all, the Institute has worked with international and multi-cultural students ever since 1952, and has a global network consisting of twelve thousand alumni, all of whom have a good understanding of how the balance of power is shifting.

“I hope that we will increasingly be able to contribute our knowledge of internationalization to EUR, and that we will be able to answer such questions as: What does incorporating all these cultures into our education and research programmes entail? What will the current influx of refugees mean to us?” Hutter feels that ISS should be used more as the university’s foothold.

Not just because of its knowledge of internationalisation, but also because of its location, i.e., The Hague. “We’re a foothold here in The Hague, where all the ministries and many major international institutions are.”

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Image credit: Ronald van den Heerik

Umbrella subject

For its part, ISS benefits from being part of Erasmus University, Hutter tells us. “For small institutes like us, co-operation is vital. It really helps us present ourselves to other parties.” For instance, as part of the Rotterdam Global Health Initiative, ISS collaborates with the Erasmus Medical Centre and the Institute of Health Policy and Management; as part of a Leiden-Delft-Erasmus co-operative, it contributes to the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa, and along with the Erasmus School of Economics, it contributes to the KidsRights Index.

According to Hutter, ISS’ main challenge in the next few years will be presenting itself to outsiders. “Whenever I enter the building, I can tell how passionate we are and what expertise we have, but we could stand to make this a little more obvious to outsiders. We can be a little too modest for our own good.”

Hutter wishes ISS to have a clear profile. “Global development and social justice will be our main research themes, the umbrella subjects on which everyone agrees, and a clear indication of our objectives to others.” ISS currently has four research programmes. “In truth, we’re not big enough for that,” says Hutter. “We aim to establish an umbrella research programme in which many parties will participate.”

Hutter would like to see ISS develop more such interdisciplinary co-operatives. “Our goal is to unite people. We have researchers discussing political economy and the environment, but it would be interesting also to have a human rights component. That’s the kind of interdisciplinary approach we’re looking for.”

Development studies are interdisciplinary by nature, says Hutter, so she does not expect the transition to be fraught with difficulty. Moreover, she brought about a similar change in Groningen in her last few years there. “I’m surprised to see how quickly it’s getting picked up here.”

Inge Hutter will give her inaugural speech, entitled “Participatory and Qualitative Research in Global Development”, on 18 February.