The name of the Hanzehogeschool in Groningen celebrates the medieval trade alliance of the Hanseatic League, an appropriate symbol for an institution which is a Dutch pioneer of internationalising higher education.
But while some parts of the institution are around 200 years old, Hanzehogeschool's current incarnation will celebrate its third birthday on April 1. It springs from the merger of two major schools of higher professional education, one of which was itself created by a spate of mergers in the 1980s. It is now one of the largest institutes in the country, with more than 15,000 students and 1,600 staff. One aim was to create a more powerful regional voice.
Hanzehogeschool now offers more than 60 study programmes in economics, technology, behavioural and life sciences, health care, education, music and the visual arts. Bert den Ouden, chairman of the executive board, admits that for the first two years, attention turned inward to ensure the success of the merger. But since then, Hanzehogeschool has been developing its strategy for the future, complete with a mission statement pledging "inspiring work places" for the "permanently learning and enterprising student". Having a mission statement is not unusual, says Mr den Ouden, "but it's unusual to be serious about it". This includes creating a "digital campus", not only allowing widespread access to the Internet, but also developing distance learning.
One potential market is Russia, where Hanzehogeschool's unique international business school (IBS) already validates courses at a Moscow economics institute. Hanzehogeschool has links with more than 150 institutions worldwide, but IBS, a unit within the economics faculty, has taken internationalisation to new heights: a quarter of the 650 students on its four-year courses come from abroad through a student exchange system. The school uses English, the business lingua franca, to teach degrees in finance and accounting and international management. This is an attractive selling point both at home and abroad, although deputy head Owen Murcott stresses the preference for subtle marketing. "We want our reputation to stand because what we deliver is something that people talk about, not because we behave like a newspaper seller on the street corner."
Students also study at least one other language apart from Dutch and English, and their course includes two semesters' study and a work placement abroad. Hanzehogeschool already has well established cross-border links with the north of Germany, and, faced with a demographic downturn in school leavers, will next session capitalise on Germany's fixed intakes by launching German-language versions of its business degrees specifically for German students.
The institution wants its students to see their degree as the start of lifelong learning, and staff are being retrained to take on the role of what the mission statement describes as an educational manager and students' coach. This philosophy is leading to a dramatic change in staff appointments. Until now, there have been only two academic salary points, but posts are being regraded across seven points according to teaching responsibilities. Mr den Ouden stresses that this is to promote future flexibility, and that the salaries of current staff will be conserved.
"The protection of what we call sitting teachers is very, very strong, and I approve of that," he says. "But it's impossible to have an inspiring workplace with only one type of lecturer."
The first academic to be hired under the new system is at the top of the scale, two points higher than existing lecturers. The new post is for an innovative joint course with Groningen University in which Hanzehogeschool dental hygiene students and university dental undergraduates will train together. There is unusually close cooperation between the two institutions, and Mr den Ouden predicts there will be other joint courses, although he stresses that Hanzehogeschool is not beset by academic drift. Amid national concern about degree completion time and drop-out rates, the deans of both institutions have been discussing a scheme whereby students who discover they are on the wrong course could transfer between the institutions without losing a year.
But some time after the year 2000, Mr den Ouden believes there could be one university in Groningen incorporating Hanzehogeschool. And such a move need not threaten Hanzehogeschool's practical, vocational outlook if it retains its present policy of decentralised decision-making. Budgetary and managerial control is devolved through faculties to heads of department unless there is an over-riding reason for central intervention. While devolution was a sensible tactic in ensuring the success of the merger three years ago, Mr den Ouden sees it as a logical strategy for continuing success.
"We're working with professionals, and the decisions we have to take depend on the people who are working with the students." Not surprisingly, he is irritated by the education ministry earmarking parts of an already reduced sectoral budget for national initiatives. "That's against the rules of autonomy. They should confront us with the budget cut so that we can then say that this is the quality we can deliver for this kind of money."