Milking the local connection

March 22, 1996

Groningen's institute of higher professional education and its university enjoy an unusually close relationship. Olga Wojtas on the bright future for complementary institutions

Groningen University is confident that youngsters will absorb its name, if not with their mother's milk, then with a range of dairy products.

Last month, the first of tens of millions of new cartons appeared in the northern provinces, courtesy of an agreement with a leading dairy company, each printed with a question about the world around us, answered by university experts. The idea is that the university logo becomes one of the most recognisable in the region.

The university is well placed for a new world of competition. Groningen, the largest city in the northern Netherlands, sees its two higher education institutions as a major boost to its economic and cultural life. It is one of 13 universities, yet attracts 11 per cent of the country's students, and has a broader range of degrees than any of its sister institutions. Founded in 1614, it is one of the four "classical" universities, along with Amsterdam, Leiden and Utrecht, and covers the traditional areas of the arts, science, social sciences, medicine, law and theology. It also runs courses normally the preserve of the technological universities, such as applied physics, chemical engineering, and technical computer science.

Groningen is seen as particularly strong in such diverse subjects as biotechnology, theology, chemistry and astronomy, and is unusual in focusing research in multidisciplinary groups, such as the materials science centre which brings together chemists, physicists and dentists. Groningen is one of only two Dutch centres specialising in research in nuclear physics.

But competition for an increased market share of students does not extend to the neighbouring polytechnic, Hanzehogeschool, and the institutions promote themselves jointly, highlighting Groningen's reputation as a student city, reputedly second only to Shanghai for its number of bicycles. Both institutions have long-standing links with sister institutions in northwest Germany that are geographically closer than any of their Dutch counterparts.

Forty thousand of the city's 160,000 inhabitants are students, 20,000 of them at the university, and rector Folkert van der Woude is determined to improve the quality of the student experience.

Students, who now face financial penalties if they do not complete degrees on time, or achieve a certain academic standard each year, must not face unnecessary difficulties, he says. These range from staff changing set texts after students have bought the books, and being unavailable as advisers, to altering exam dates and not meeting marking deadlines.

The university also hopes to increase students' job prospects by wooing local employers. Around 10 per cent of the 3,000 students graduating each year go on to postgraduate work, 10 per cent into the professions, and 80 per cent into the general job market. Since multinationals are hiring fewer graduates the university is introducing small and medium-sized enterprises to the benefits of a graduate workforce by asking them to take on students for a three to six-month probation period.

As the area's largest employer the university has first-hand experience of employment difficulties. Until five years ago, the government paid unemployment benefit to redundant academics, but institutions must now pick up the bill. Around 1,000 staff have been made redundant since 1984, costing the university more than Dfl 30 million (Pounds 20 million) annually and taking up some 9 per cent of its government funding.

While Professor van der Woude wants to see a much better monitoring and advisory system for students, he is opposed to pre-entry selection. "We're trying to attract more students from the rest of the country but we don't want to become the Harvard or Yale of the Netherlands over the backs of the students."

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