PhD in Mathematics, Leiden University, 1981
Province of North-Holland, started in regional economic research, ended CFO,
University of Amsterdam
o Director of Operational Audit, 2002-2006
o Corporate Controller, 2006-2011
o Director of Strategy and Information, 2011-present
If civic means being connected to city and citizens, then the University of Amsterdam is
truly civic in origin. It was founded by Amsterdam city council at a time when almost
more books were being printed there than in the rest of the world combined.
The elements of our current mission are these (slide 1). You see a strongly egalitarian
and meritocratic appeal to deploy your talents, urbi et orbi one might say, but also you
see the university describe itself as a community of academics rather than as an
institution with a societal purpose of its own. It tells what binds us. What we are good
for, is touched upon in the broadest terms only, namely competing in the world of
research and serving culture and progress. Essentially it is a supply side mission
statement: “Look, here we are”.
This statement was written shortly after the 2010 OECD Review of Higher Education in
Regional and City Development Amsterdam and at a time that the Dutch government
was trying to make universities more directly useful to industry. It reflects that, with our
very large and high-ranking humanities and social sciences faculties, we feel that there
should be no antithesis between the economic and societal impact of universities.
Everything we do should inspire change and have some sort of impact, which could then
be scaled on the dimensions of depth and spread (slide 2). Global impact might need the
power and resources of nation states or big industry. Local and regional impact needs a
focus on the people and institutions that sociographically form the region.
This diagram is designed to stress that a civic university is a university that makes it all its
business. Higher education is not only about preparing the best talents for top positions
but equally about educating all the upper 50% of our youngsters, according to the Lisbon
goals. It is as much about providing for the Amsterdam labour market as it is about
preparing young people for a global future. Likewise, in a comprehensive university
having a strong alliance with the Amsterdam University of Applied Science, our research
ranges from applied research with local SME’s to fundamental research on the world’s
grand challenges and from cooperation with leading industries to involvement with
urban solutions and international developmental issues. In Amsterdam we see the civic
university as an inclusive concept, not as something that is the opposite of a research
As it is, however, the University of Amsterdam does not possess a structure to support a
civic agenda (slide 3). Its formal structure is pyramidal with each faculty being led by a
dean whose primary concerns are research and teaching, in that order usually. There is
no matrix structure like we see in such examples as Arhus or Newcastle, where every
dean also takes on a university-wide responsibility for teaching, research, talent
development or civic engagement. Moreover, unlike some other countries, in Dutch
universities the outside world does not come in through large corporate bodies and
committees. Therefore, most of our civic engagement uses the side doors: the
connections and liaisons of academic individuals. This is in line with our community type
mission statement but may not result in optimal and consolidated solutions.
Consolidation is not the strongest side of the individual researcher, who will always be
looking for the next challenge and the next summit to climb.
This is precisely what the OECD review urged the city and the universities to do (slide 4):
Consolidating centres of excellence, connecting with business and institutions in the
region and defining the international dimension from a competitive advantages point of
view. One result of the review was the establishment of the triple helix Amsterdam
Economic Board, another the strengthening of Technology Transfer within the city with
the use of some ERDF money.
However, universities are like oil tankers. Even small changes in course take time and
there is a long distance between the bridge and the crew, as the survey results from the
civic universities project confirm. It takes more than the average politician’s time in
office to reach real results. Already now, city authorities in Amsterdam seem to shift
their enthusiasm beyond the Economic Board by tendering a new technology institute
New York style, going around the existing structures.
To tune the university system to the 21st century and a Europe of city regions, and
develop civic universities as regional anchor institutions, we need enhanced interaction
and dialogue between universities and European civil society. This is where the
European Union can put in some significant contributions (slide 5).
For a start, universities now educate the upper half of the labour market across all
traditional divides, and not just the elite. That means that civic universities need to cross
the binary border between academic and professional education, and between
fundamental and applied research that prevails in the Netherlands and many other
countries. By promoting interregional exchange, the EU could speed up that process.
Would some EU funding be helpful? Evidently, Amsterdam is not below 75% or even
100% of average GDP. However, the one thing that gets oil tanker academics moving is
when they flock around external funding. While policies take political office terms to
achieve progress, some money does that in 2 or 3 years’ time. So if we want to enhance
the civicness of our universities, some Horizon2020 funding could be spent towards
developing the 21st century university itself, with and for society, instead of confronting
the grand societal challenges in the traditional way of universities.
And last but not least, with its 7-year programme cycle of the ERDF and Horizon2020,
the EU is well placed to provide such incentives with a longer duration than the next
local or general election, and could therefore be a powerful force in consolidating the
anchor role of civic universities.