Universities must develop strategies to prove their relevance and value to society “in a credible way”, according to the president of VU Amsterdam.
Jaap Winter said it is “crucial” that higher education institutions do not deliver this message “just by saying it” but “actually by showing it”, and suggested that universities should develop methodologies and tools to demonstrate their worth using a “trustworthy” approach.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Winter said: “Universities have something good to deliver to society at large that is not just the outcome of research, which is one element of it, but also the way we educate our young people to become responsible members of society.”
He said the task of proving their worth to society has been “a struggle” for universities, which must compete for funding with other sectors such as healthcare and defence.
“We are accustomed to showing our academic relevance and we have the rankings for that,” he said. “We have a bit of an ability to show our economic relevance – the impact economically that universities have.”
But, he said, “it has been very hard, so far, for universities to show that actually we touch so many people in their lives, by the things that we can imagine, by the way that we teach, the way that we help people to organise parts of society”.
He added: “There is not one recipe [for] doing it. What [universities] share now is a determination to want to do that and to actually develop methodologies and tools in which we can show this to society in a credible way.”
He said it is particularly important for institutions to demonstrate the value of arts and humanities, which can “lose out completely” when it comes to securing competitive research funding.
“It seems like society only values what seems to be something that can immediately be turned into economic profit, which is either economics and business administration or hard-core science turned into applications in real life,” Professor Winter said.
Conversely, he said, society does not see the benefit of disciplines in which the value is “much more indirect” or “much more difficult to discern” and is not necessarily immediate, such as the humanities.
However, he acknowledged that the squeezing of public funding in many nations has made it more difficult for universities to “remain relevant” and “deliver constant quality at the highest level”.
He said that university funding per student in the Netherlands has dropped by 30 to 40 per cent owing to an “enormous increase in university students over the last 20 years” without a commensurate rise in income.