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Speech on the occasion of the Opening of the Academic Year by Prof. Elmer Sterken, Rector Magnificus of the University of Groningen

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I’d like to talk to you today about the frontiers of a university. It’s a very abstract topic, but I’d like to try to show that it can also be a very concrete, if not practical-policy-based, topic in this profile-defining time.

The society surrounding us is changing fast, something you can experience yourself daily in the media. This means that universities must sometimes implement significant changes in policy. To quote my predecessor, Frans Zwarts, every now and then universities have to reinvent themselves.

Now, too, we are living in a period where we have to ponder deeply about our mission. Of course we can lock ourselves up in an ivory tower, but that’s hardly a sensible strategy.

The question is, what can an institution whose mission is top quality academic research and teaching contribute to the development of a regional, national and European society?  Our society is lurching, economically speaking, from crisis to crisis, and is faced with the enormous challenge of updating its technological basis and making it sustainable while at the same time wrestling with the consequences of the most far-reaching globalization ever.

So where does a university stand in such a world? What is expected of it and which of these expectations can it realize?

I shall return to this later. First, I would like to pay tribute to those students and staff who passed away in the last academic year.

Please all stand.

Brief silence

Please sit.

So what are the most important social shifts taking place around us? I shall describe just two, then discuss the desire of the Cabinet to create a general profile of a university, and then take the first step towards creating such a profile for our own institution. Our slogan is ‘working at the frontiers of knowledge’, but it is at least as interesting to take a moment to think about the frontiers of our own activities.

The first unmistakable change is the shift in economic power in the world. Swiftly rising countries such as Brazil, Russia, India, China, other Asian Tigers and producers of important raw materials such as the Arab nations and South Africa are all using the resources they generate to invest in knowledge. This is clearly visible, including in the contacts that we have with those countries. You only have to walk around a brand-new campus in China and the feeling is unmistakeable.

The second development is mainly in the Western industrial nations, and is the decline in willingness to invest public resources in higher education. Higher education is increasingly being regarded as an individual and no longer as a social responsibility.

In countries with a public higher education system in particular, such as the Netherlands, this has led to the education system being forced by the government to put itself into a straitjacket. There is less money but more public interference. This is the important paradox we are facing – in a period of diminishing government responsibility we are faced with more rules aimed to regulate Higher Education.

Certainly in the wake of the InHolland affair, the government considers just keeping a finger on the pulse no longer sufficient. They have therefore replaced this caring nurse’s gesture with a punitive system of preventive control, handcuffs and fines. And let’s not forget the strict agreements about productivity improvement – more graduates, more top quality publications and less ‘hassle’, in the words of Prime Minister Rutte.

So, on to the new policy. In the autumn, what is known as the Main Points of Agreement for Higher Education [Hoofdlijnenakkoord voor het Hoger Onderwijs] will be discussed by the Dutch House of Representatives. The Rutte Cabinet is seeking solutions on two fronts – profile definitions for universities and closer cooperation with business.

I would like to say something general about both topics, and then I will move on to the frontiers of our University’s profile. My message will be that researchers themselves should determine the course of their investigations and that research is also an important pointer for the direction of our educational curricula.

When we examine the two main tasks of a university, teaching and research, then with regard to the latter all researchers are competing with each other for places in journals that only publish new research and research that clearly distinguishes itself. Where possible, beneficial cooperation agreements between universities are encouraged, particularly regarding the use of expensive equipment and the deployment of people. This can even go so far as thinking about a merger, as our sister institutions in South Holland are doing. Research is thus by definition and by its very nature profile defining. However, the strong tendency of the government (particularly Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation) here, together with the business world, to behave in a deterministic way via top sectors, is increasingly defining the playing field for a growing percentage of research finance.

With regard to teaching, a strong call for a clear profile is remarkable to say the least. As I’ve already said, the market is over-regulated, or perhaps I can put it better another way – hyper-regulated. There are fixed prices, fixed salaries, compulsory admission of students, a counterproductive system of regulations concerning quality (which will only increase after InHolland!), and the obligation to provide higher education to 50% of all Dutch people between the ages of 25 and 45 within the foreseeable future.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the inescapable conclusion is that even that great escape artiste Houdini would own himself beaten. I’m sure that it would be easier to be locked into twenty chains and thrown into an aquarium with twenty tiger sharks and escape alive than to define a profile for yourself on the Dutch education market.

And this brings me to the heart of my theme – where are the frontiers of a university like ours? And I don’t mean physical frontiers, because as far as I’m concerned they’ve completely evaporated; I mean content-related frontiers demarcating what we should and should not do and what we can and can’t do.

Once again I’m going to differentiate between research and teaching in relation to the frontiers of our own activities.

The frontiers of research don’t appear to exist, and nor should there be any. Only experts in the fields should determine the course of science, and nobody else. Only researchers can determine what course advances in knowledge should take. From a thematic point of view, therefore, researchers have complete freedom. After all, there are plenty of examples that show that limiting the themes is counterproductive. It leads to risk-avoiding behaviour and usually results in middle of the road research, and not in pioneering results. Giving money to talented researchers (however difficult it is to determine who they are) is the best strategy.

So what about defining research fields? No university can or wants to cover the entire range of academic research. No university has the resources for this – even the richest American universities would not be able to. In addition, hysteresis or path dependence also exists in research. Today’s position determines the future, or although results from the past are no guarantee for the future, they are often a predictor of future success. This is also the mechanism used to assess research – has a group produced high quality work and has it been productive? If the answer is yes, then that is an indication to continue with complete freedom of choice for the individual researchers with regard to themes.

In practice, this means that the future research profile of the University of Groningen will be determined by the results of visitations, by successful NWO and ERC grant applications, and by the acquisition of other financial resources in open competition. Proven quality will determine the path to future research activities. In addition, there must also be limited room for new initiatives and starting up new research groups.

University research activities will more than ever before have to search for external funding possibilities. In order to ensure that the university chimney keeps smoking, external sources of fuel are needed. So, linking the University of Groningen themes to major social themes as defined by the European Commission, the Dutch top sector policy and the cooperation with the universities of Nijmegen, Twente and Wageningen is extremely important. However, the primary responsibility must be held by the Groningen researchers themselves.

I promised that I would also discuss the second of Rutte’s education policy themes – interaction with business, also known as the top sector policy. I’m not going to explain exactly what this is, but one important result of this initiative by the Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, the second pet education project of the Rutte Cabinet, could be that spin-offs from academic research reach the market more quickly. The top sector initiative can significantly improve the information exchange between major companies and universities, I’m convinced of that. The experiences we’ve had in the past six months clearly show this.

However, what must be prevented is private companies determining the academic research agenda. The latter must remain the preserve of the researchers themselves. Nevertheless, researchers, too, realize that social relevance and visibility is crucially important. The successful public information campaign on Dutch astronomy is a good example of this. And in the field of Food & Nutrition, for example, in which the University of Groningen participates, companies and knowledge institutions have proven that they can work well together on a research programme while continuing to respect both approaches and each other’s agendas.

Whatever the issue, it has become very important for all universities to give a clear answer to the question of which social themes they can contribute to.

The University of Groningen is well on the way to creating that clarity. In that sense our profile is becoming clearer and clearer. No-one can have failed to notice that the University is a leading light in two initiatives – Healthy Ageing and Energy. We can now add the sustainable society theme in the arts and social sciences sector. Together with proven research quality in established scientific fields, for example the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, which holds a global top five position, these themes determine the research profile of our institution.

The research profile should also be expressed in the teaching profile, and that brings me to the definition of the frontiers of teaching.

Universities must clearly delimit the educational products they offer. Within the spirit of Bologna, in my view we should design Bachelor’s degree programmes that are as broadly based as possible at the outset, and then gradually move towards increasing specialization so that in time a great deal of specialization is possible in the Master’s phase.

For a university such as ours, the regional roots are very important, and a wide basic range of general Bachelor’s degree programmes fits our institution. So, in addition to a few specific Bachelor’s degrees, the University of Groningen range should remain as comprehensive as possible. In my view there is also a great need for a liberal arts type of Bachelor’s degree. Bachelor’s programmes in Groningen will thus be broadly based and preparatory, and they will not differentiate themselves from the rest of the world in content but more in the quality and the intensity of the teaching.

So we are moving towards a Groningen teaching philosophy.

One of the starting points will be a passion for research. We want to work with students who are ambitious about their studies. This includes them belonging to communities linked to the University. These communities play a real role in the further acquisition of knowledge and skills in and around the degree programmes.

This view also means that the students’ ambitions will be expressed by study pace and that success rates will continue to improve. It also fits in a time when students take a rational approach to study pace.

From now on, full attention is required. Thinking about measures to promote success rates fits within this framework. The BSA system introduced at this University in 2010 has led to an increase in the number of students who earn at least 40 of the 60 ECTS credit points in the first year from just over 60 to at least 80 percent. By the by, should a student not also form part of a year cohort and study with his or her fellow cohort members? This is something we want to flesh out further. It should lead to greater cohesion and thus to better studying behaviour.

The University of Groningen is going to be much more selective in its range of Master’s programmes. They must be linked to the high quality research groups Or a completely natural transition to a particular profession must be possible. Degree programmes that do not manage to meet one or other of these perspectives will have to be terminated.

The University of Groningen as an institution will thus have to determine its own frontiers for research and teaching. That is certainly not an easy task. The British economist Ronald Coase, in his famous work The Nature of the Firm from 1937, stated that the limits of a firm lie between what one permits the market to organize and what can be more favourably driven by internal factors. Although a university is not a firm, the Coase vision can be extrapolated to our institution with the necessary amount of caution. A university should never undertake any activities that can be done better and/or more efficiently by the market. This not only applies to the production of goods, but also to the provision of services.

The University of Groningen will have to concentrate exclusively on its core activities in the years to come – teaching and research. The public resources will be entirely committed to the two core duties of teaching and research, and every effort must be made to attract additional resources from other sources in order to develop the University further. Talent, excellence and ambition will receive continued attention in the years to come, but any and all activities that are not directly related to the core should be reconsidered.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the University of Groningen is in very good shape, despite the clouds on the horizon. Our financial position is healthy, research in certain sectors is world-class, I would again like to mention the Zernike Institute for Advanced Materials, and our degree programmes are attractive to international students. University staff are winning more ERC grants than ever before, and there are more international students arriving in Groningen. We are ready to work on our own frontiers. Thank you for your attention.

Last modified:15 September 2017 3.30 p.m.
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