University battles old-school ties

January 8, 1999

The Netherlands' Leiden University is making a bid for independence. Leiden chairman Laurens Vredevoogd wants to free the country's oldest university from government control and develop it as a top-ranking international institution.

Mr Vredevoogd hopes to win the support of the new minister of education, Loek Hermans, despite education having suffered a series of cutbacks under Mr Hermans's predecessor.

Leiden has gained a reputation for rebellion over the past few months, dropping rijk, a term meaning "state", from its official title, Rijksuniversiteit Leiden, claiming that the word was symbolic of the political influence that many people believe has undermined the quality of education in Holland.

"We wanted to distance ourselves from the government," Mr Vredevoogd said. "We want to be able to arrange our own affairs and have more autonomy."

The university has also protested against a new government law to integrate the computer systems of all public organisations. The move is designed to make it more difficult for people to remain in the country illegally.

Mr Vredevoogd said that many people perceive the law as discriminatory:

"There is a deep feeling at this university that goes back to the beginning of the war when the occupying German forces tried to use the university to get rid of Jewish teachers. We refused and as a result Leiden was closed for years. That reinforced opinion that this would be a dishonest use of the university."

Leiden's recent stance reflects a general feeling in the Netherlands that university education is in decline. While academic standards in Holland have always been high and the country does exceptionally well in the field of research, Mr Vredevoogd fears that this area is being cut.

This is undermining efforts to create a learning environment in which good students are encouraged to excel, he said.

"The Netherlands is an egalitarian country, and that is fine except when it comes to universities. We should be elitist in terms of education. Students are not all the same, yet they all get the same education, which I find strange."

Rules require universities to go through complicated procedures if they want to make any changes. But because state funding is no longer guaranteed, Mr Vredevoogd intends to ask Mr Hermans for permission for Leiden to raise its own income.

Mr Vredevoogd wants to adopt the American approach, which encourages businesses to fund postgraduate research. However, he argues that the government has a duty to continue funding some of the less commercially attractive subjects, such as languages, theology and philosophy.

The university has opened an office in the Hague to raise its profile among politicians and the international community. The office will also be used for lobbying government. A project director has been appointed, with responsibility for developing commercial and political contacts.

Mr Vredevoogd is confident that the incoming education minister will be sympathetic to his cause. "We have great expectations of him," he said.

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