Goijarts was invited by the organisers to give a presentation on the paradox encountered by present-day students: they all want an excellent CV listing many extracurricular activities, but at the same time, the fact that student grants have been replaced with student loans and the fact that students are now pressured to complete their degrees in the time officially allotted to said degrees make this a very expensive proposition. “Burn-out is really becoming a thing among students. And only rich students can afford to carry out extracurricular activities on top of their degrees,” Goijarts stated. Her story was pleasantly specific after the occasionally unfocused discussions that preceded it.

Completely white

To quote a former rector from Chicago: ‘A university is schools and departments, linked to each other by central heating’

Willem Schinkel

Thankfully, the irony of holding a debate on universities’ position in society at Erasmus University College (which is hermetically closed to normal people and quite expensive) was not lost on the debaters. To University Council member Jiska Engelbert, it touched at the core of her argument: first she wished to consider on whose terms she was having the debate on universities. “Because tonight, as usual, the panel is completely white. Luckily, there is some variation as to gender and age, because I’m quite a bit younger than the other panellists,” Engelbert said, to the amusement of many people in the audience.

Willem Schinkel, too, first wanted to debate the points of departure of the debate itself. “No one knows what a university is, not even we ourselves. To quote a former rector of the University of Chicago: ‘A university is schools and departments, linked to each other by central heating.’ Another definition: universities supply students with sex, alumni with sport and employees with parking spots.” What Schinkel was trying to say was that no one has the foggiest. Therefore, he suggested that we first determine the exact nature of a university’s public duty. “As far as I’m concerned, it consists of four main tasks: conducting research that is not subject to market forces, providing accessible education, maintaining a knowledge archive and sharing knowledge with the people.”

In his presentation, the Vice Dean of RSM, Dirk van Dierendonck, tried to make a stand for the phenomenon of life-long learning. “Until recently, people in their late fifties simply disappeared from the job market. That is no longer the case. This presents us with opportunities. At RSM, we seek to serve this market – for instance, by providing MBA programmes.”

Hostile audience

Pieter Duisenberg was treated to a slightly hostile audience, most likely because he used to be an MP for the conservative-liberal VVD party. He tried to break the ice by bringing up a traditionally leftist subject: the Sustainable Development Goals. According to Duisenberg, universities’ raison d’être is the work they carry out in order to achieve these goals. Emcee Robin van den Akker did not grant him much time to make his point. Unlike other panellists, Duisenberg was told to get to the point several times.

One of the things Duisenberg hopes to achieve in politics through lobbying is money invested in education no longer being regarded as a ‘black hole’, but rather as an investment ‘with a return on investment’. “We are seeing increased competition from countries such as Germany, Denmark and Asian countries, which make greater investments in education than we do. This constitutes a risk.” Duisenberg also believes digitisation, which allows Dutch students to ‘attend’ lectures given by foreign professors, poses a threat.

The other panellists did not much care for the former MP’s argument. “You are embracing the rat race,” was Engelbert’s summary of Duisenberg’s story. “I don’t even know where to begin,” said Schinkel, sighing. “You want us to compete with other countries? We are actually collaborating with them a lot. And German universities are not receiving a lot of money at all. In fact, spending on them has decreased significantly.”

Not enough time

The VSNU President felt he was not given enough time to clarify his point. “If I’d been given a little more time to explain things, you would agree with me,” he said to Engelbert. “You don’t know much about me if you think so,” Engelbert replied with self-mocking humour. There was not much time to enter into a debate. Duisenberg had to leave the debate before the evening was over.

The evening’s debate on the future of universities was part of a series of three debates. The next debate is scheduled to take place in February.