A little extra ordinary

May 24, 1996

A favourite Dutch saying is: "Ordinary is extraordinary enough." The expression says much about Dutch attitudes. Common sense, pragmatism and (false) modesty are important values. This has left its mark on the university system. Thus Leiden University's announcement that excellence in teaching and research was to become the norm, and its explicit reference to ambition and outstanding ability, caused a tremor in the Dutch academic world.

It is necessary to explain why Leiden has chosen to break with the Dutch policy of uniformity. I recently compared the Dutch policy on education to the actions of the mythical giant Procrustes. This giant was in the habit of extending his hospitality to travellers, only to kill and rob them when they were asleep at night. He chopped off the feet of those who were too tall to fit the bed and stretched those who were too short. In the end they all expired.

Since the 1960s higher education in the Netherlands has had to cope with unbridled expansion. Higher education for as many as possible became the ideal and research funds were coupled to the number of students. Meanwhile, the government was dealing with increasingly severe financial problems. Successive ministers and members of parliament felt that the universities, too, could retrench. The universities were given the task of critically re-evaluating the resources employed for the benefit of research, while competing increasingly with one another for students. Funds continued to be allocated according to the number of students and quantity instead of quality started to determine their financial situation.

This brought universities a growing number of problems, yet they succeeded in coping with more and more students with less and less funds, in expanding research productivity and in maintaining and, where necessary, improving the quality of both the teaching and research at the universities. This was obviously no incentive to the government to adjust its policy.

The attempts of the national government to achieve better financial control of the expenses for education and research through detailed legislation, combined with the sheer numbers of students, levelled Dutch university education into drab uniformity. As in the bed of Procrustes, everything was reduced or stretched to the same size. Carried to the extreme, a situation could develop in which the government is frantically attempting to keep 13 identical universities open with only the minimum of resources.

Leiden has resolved to break free of Procrustes and to escape from the equality strait-jacket. This is not because the university has delusions of grandeur but because Leiden has, just in time, come to understand that it must make the most of its talents. Leiden does not have the funds to maintain all the activities which it built up in the past. Over the past few years, the budget has been cut by 15 per cent while the level of activities remained the same.

To hold on to, and even strengthen, the good, it has no choice but to abandon the mediocre. This means that those wishing to work or study there will be required to meet high standards.

Last year, Leiden presented a strategic plan entitled "Coursing for Quality" which clearly formulated this intention to stand apart. The university wishes to reward excellence instead of discouraging this by treating everyone the same, regardless of their performance. The first steps towards implementing this have already been taken in both research and teaching.

The most important action for research has been the evaluation of the quality of the research efforts, in order to limit the number of focal points. By setting priorities (and by gradually cutting back on lower quality or less relevant research) it will become possible to invest more in good and promising research. The findings of the quality assessment were recently made known to a number of faculties. While this gave rise to some commotion, the majority of staff agree that the decision of whether or not a research programme should be continued should be based on a rational quality review.

This puts a stop to the practice in which this decision was primarily made on the basis of incidental vacancies opening up and by the urge to spread the cutbacks "fairly".

The university also proposes to make its human resources policy more flexible. The limitations of rigid regulation are also felt in this area. In the past year, the minister has allowed the universities more leeway in the manner in which this is to be fulfilled. Leiden intends to use this extra freedom to appoint more postdoctoral and other temporary staff. In addition, the quality of an employee's performance will be taken more heavily into account by the university in its salary policy and employment conditions.

The teaching aspect was also overhauled during the past year. The university is encouraging good and motivated students to come to Leiden. For the first time, a university has elected to target a specific group in this way.

The university has had to endure a wave of criticism Q it has been accused of snobbishness, for one thing Q but as it turns out students appreciate the university telling them explicitly what it expects of them. This is a radical break with the Dutch tradition in which the student social life in the relevant city and cheap housing or sports facilities were often the most important recruiting criteria.

Students had virtually no information about the contents of the programmes offered in the various disciplines and no idea at all about what was expected of them. Nowadays, the supply of information has been much improved with the publication of the Keuzegids Hoger Onderwijs, a guide to the options in higher education, in which the course programmes of the various universities are compared. This has made it necessary for the universities to become more emphatically concerned with the quality of teaching provided.

Leiden informs students explicitly of the requirements which they will have to satisfy, and tells them after a year whether they will be permitted to continue their studies or not. It goes without saying that this is only possible on the condition that the quality of the teaching is good, the students are given adequate guidance and a fair chance to prove themselves.

Leiden plans to make special efforts for good and motivated students. So-called master classes will be organised for these students. These are in-depth lectures delivered by prominent academics. These students are thus given the chance to gain a more profound understanding of their field.

Hitherto, quite often more than one person was responsible for the curriculum of a single study programme. This is due to change shortly. Enormous effort is now being directed at improving the educational structure so that students, the faculty board and the administration all have access to a known contact point where teaching-related matters are concerned.

Fortunately, the university can count on support for the implementation of its intentions, as the minister has come to realise that it is necessary to stimulate differentiation and selectivity in the teaching provided by and research performed by the universities. He had indicated that if Leiden should recruit fewer students because of the higher requirements set by the university, this will not have an immediate impact on the funds allocated. This will give Leiden the opportunity to strengthen and reinforce its new profile in relative peace.

Even in the down-to-earth Netherlands, there would seem to be room for a university with ambition.

Loek Vredevoogd is president of Leiden University.

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