It is rare for a new President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) to be the subject of so much debate. People have even started a petition against the appointment of the former MP of the conservative-liberal party VVD. The petition already bears nearly 4,800 signatures, from students to academics. Why? As a member of the Dutch House of Representatives, VVD member Duisenberg expounded views on higher education that are at odds with the universities’ positions.

Pull up a chair

To clear the air, Duisenberg kicked off his term as VSNU President with a tour that takes him past each of the Dutch universities. And last Thursday Erasmus University was on the itinerary. Duisenberg and Babs van den Bergh, the Director of the VSNU Office, met with the staff and student members of the University Council and representatives of a number of faculty councils in the Erasmus Building Board Room.

Whereas in Utrecht and Amsterdam the President took a bit of a grilling, in Rotterdam the students and staff members adopted a different approach: “There are only a few moments in which we all pull up a chair. I’d prefer to use those opportunities to talk about the future. I’m interested in hearing what Duisenberg can do for us,” explained Nadine Nieuwstad, a student member of the EUR University Council.

Nevertheless, Jiksa Engelbert, a staff member of the University Council, started things off with a piquant question. Because why did Duisenberg decide on this career move? “You worked as a representative of the people – I’d assume that’s the best job in the world. And now you’ll be serving 14 non-democratic university administrations.” Duisenberg explained that for him, serving the common good is his number-one priority. “On top of which I have a soft spot for universities and their environment. I enjoy visiting you. And in this role, I can also make a difference here.”

VSNU’s positions

Duisenberg explained that his brief from VSNU includes three distinct assignments. Ensure that Dutch scholarship retains a top position within the international playing field, that universities play an important role in society and that universities start to work together more effectively.

The latter position could immediately count on questions from the representatives. “The universities all have different viewpoints and interests. How will VSNU be achieving this consensus?” asked University Council staff member Daisy Bogaard. “Try to talk with each other a lot. When you do that, you always turn out to have more things in common than you initially assumed,” said Duisenberg.

Better education

On top of which I have a soft spot for universities and their environment. I enjoy visiting you

Pieter Duisenberg

Sanne van Dongen, who represented the staff in the Faculty Council of Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences, was interested in hearing VSNU’s views on the separation of professors’ education and research tasks. “Some of our lecturers would like to concentrate more on education. And others feel more akin to researchers. But the emphasis often tends to be on academic research.”

Duisenberg said that the focus should be less on individuals and more on teams. “Not every lecturer or researcher needs to hone each competence to perfection. But we do need to see a combination of research and education activities: this is of vital importance for the quality of our academic research.”

Duisenberg also voiced his concerns about the quality of education. This was one point that the entire company could agree upon. Indeed, promoting better education will form one of the key challenges for VSNU in the period ahead. Duisenberg: “The cancellation of the basic grant frees up EUR 1 billion for the universities’ budgets. And the grant scheme hasn’t been cancelled for nothing: this money has to give a big boost to the quality of education.”

Diversity and internationalisation are also high on VSNU’s agenda. “We’re an open society. Students need to gain as much experience as possible with different nationalities and cultures.”

Fundamental or applied research?

After 90 minutes or so, Duisenberg was yet put through the mill about previous utterances as a VVD MP. Because what was the deal with his call for further commercialisation of education and research? “That gave me a bit of a shock,” said Philosophy lecturer Tim de Mey. “This entails a risk – of reducing the scope for fundamental research that isn’t driven by potential commercial applications, but by a thirst for knowledge.”

Duisenberg reassured De Mey: “Fundamental and applied research are both valuable forms of scholarship. Climate change is a good example. We can only find solutions by engaging both models.”

Not a one-off visit

Duisenberg wrote down all the suggestions and comments shared that day. He took them with him to The Hague, along with the input gathered at the other Dutch universities. And if it were up to him, he’d be found back at our campus quite regularly. “I find it important to get to know the different universities even better. Listen, listen, listen. That’s going to be my motto. And looking for interfaces and connections.”

The University Council wasn’t entirely convinced yet. They’re curious to find out which ambitions the President will be able to realise within his new position. “It was a good start for the moment,” conceded University Council staff representatives Boogaard and Engelbert with some scepticism.