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The university of the future

Date:16 June 2020
Jouke de Vries
Jouke de Vries

The University of Groningen is standing at a difficult point in history, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Gerrit Breeuwsma, the members of student party Lijst Calimero, Janka Stoker and Harry Garretsen have also illustrated this in their comments in the UKrant and on Twitter. Where are we heading? I was quoted in local newspaper het Dagblad van het Noorden as saying: ‘The UG should become the best online university in Europe’. This was just one sentence from a broader analysis – reflected in my previous journal posts – in which I explain my choice for realizing a hybrid university. Breeuwsma and others have taken that one quote and turned it into a noose.

As a result of the existential crisis in which universities now find themselves, we need to fundamentally consider the future of the university, or rather, the university of the future. I envision three prospective models:

  1. The mass university
  2. The online university
  3. The hybrid university

We know the first model better than any other and so many people wish to keep it this way. Universities around the globe have developed into mass universities over the past few centuries, carrying out teaching and research activities on a large scale. Academic teaching and research is a great merit for many people, but it also has its negative sides. Lectures to a mass audience lead to alienation between lecturers and students. We attempt to rectify this through seminars, but it is debatable as to whether these alone are sufficient. The mass university is so large that an enormous monitoring and management system has had to be built around it, through which pressure is placed on the autonomy of lecturers.

The online university entails all teaching activities being held digitally. This development has been progressing for a while now, with the help of ‘lecture streaming’, ‘MOOCs’ and ‘SPOCs’.  The coronavirus pandemic has led to the transformation towards the digital university happening rather quickly. Although this has taken a lot of energy, some lecturers are  proud that it has been successful and that they have regained a sense of autonomy. But this model also has its disadvantages. How do we organize placements, lab research and practicals? Is virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) a possible solution?  These are relevant questions for the Faculty of Science and Engineering and the Faculty of Medical Sciences, among others. The quick transformation to online teaching has also shown that, although there might not be that much personal contact in the mass university model either, this contact is actually valued and missed. 

That is why I am working towards the hybrid model. This entails the UG investing more in digital teaching (the best in Europe? No, the best in the world, Breeuwsma) and guaranteeing small-scale in-person teaching as well. This way, the UG and the city of Groningen will remain attractive to international students. 

Going back to the way things were is too easy! Together, we will have to consider the future of the university.

Jouke de Vries
President of the University
16 June 2020