The University of Amsterdam, a case study


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Presentation by Arne Brentjes, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on the occasion of the EESC workshop on Universities for Europe (Brussels, 13 June 2014)

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The University of Amsterdam, a case study

  1. 1. 1 Arne Brentjes  Rotterdam, 1955  PhD in Mathematics, Leiden University, 1981  Province of North-Holland, started in regional economic research, ended CFO, 1981-2002  University of Amsterdam o Director of Operational Audit, 2002-2006 o Corporate Controller, 2006-2011 o Director of Strategy and Information, 2011-present
  2. 2. 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. 2
  3. 3. 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 university. 3
  4. 4. 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. 4
  5. 5. 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. 5
  6. 6. 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. 6