News - March 12, 2015

No crisis in Wageningen

Albert Sikkema

If you sympathize with the student occupation of the Maagdenhuis in Amsterdam, what are you sympathizing with? And which Amsterdam lessons apply in Wageningen too? An analysis.

What started as a protest against university budget cuts to small language degree programmes has grown into a national debate on democratic participation, depth and market forces in Dutch universities. Relevant issues for Wageningen University as well, but in what ways? There are real differences between the educational philosophies and consultation systems at Amsterdam and Wageningen universities. An analysis.

1. Educational funding
The student protests at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) started in the humanities, where many degree programmes have seen their student numbers drop below the viable minimum in the past few years. The Amsterdam faculties sought a solution in merging small degree programmes such as modern Greek (25 students), Hebrew (11) and Latin (10). ‘Everyone knows that programmes which only attract a handful of students every year are too expensive,’ declared daily newspaper Trouw in November last year. ‘But the UvA is the only place you can study languages such as modern Greek, Czech and Serbo-Croatian.’

Wageningen students won’t encounter this problem because Wageningen’s programmes have only gone on growing in recent years, with the rising student numbers. Because education funding is largely based on the number of students registered, you could even say that the government has been investing in popular Wageningen programmes at the expense of minority choice Amsterdam programmes. If you feel that funding should be based less on student numbers and more on criteria such as quality, you could, as a Wageningen student, be shooting yourself in the foot. Because the Wageningen executive board wants more government funding to help pay for the growth in student numbers and classes. This ambition clashes with a ministry of Economic Affairs rule – the so-called 2 percent rule – which limits the role of student numbers in funding allocation. Although the quality of Wageningen degree programmes is beyond doubt – they have been judged the best in the Netherlands for years – the Amsterdam demands would not necessarily work out well for Wageningen’s education. The universities’ association, VSNU, which issued a statement in response to the protests, aims to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, the VSNU says, ‘Make the funding system less dependent on criteria based on numbers’. And on the other hand, they say, ‘The government should acknowledge the drop in funding per student and act on it.’ In other words: with PHOTO: more money for the universities we can stay friends with everybody.

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2. Educational philosophy
The Amsterdam demonstrators think the essence of academic education, which is to form critical citizens, is being thrown away. Their call for ‘Bildung’ – a German word for allround personal growth and education – echoes Louise Fresco’s criticism of the Amsterdam ‘education factory’ when she was still professor there, expressed in her book Kruisbestuiving [Cross-Pollination]. The demonstrators compare the Bildung university with the market-driven university which assesses programmes and staff on their market value.

This Bildung ideal looks like a last-ditch defence by the older generation. The Amsterdam students will not have experienced much of this educational approach, while those in Wageningen never cease to praise the smallscale Wageningen model with its many electives and contact hours. According to Fresco, who is in a position to compare Amsterdam and Wageningen education, the Wageningen model makes it possible to run a wide range of courses taught by inspiring teachers. When you look at Wageningen you see no sign of a crisis in educational philosophy. But it could still come, of course. If Bildung is a last-ditch battle, the digitalization of education could well be the advance guard attack in the educational debate. New teaching formulae such as MOOCs break up material into bit-size chunks of information and the question becomes: who connects this knowledge, how is the student challenged to find relationships between ever more complex issues, and what kinds of assignments and structure will the future digital courses offer?

And then there is the important question of where these issues will be debated. The Amsterdam students want to see decision-making in higher education decentralized to faculty boards. Given that our university only has one faculty, this idea wouldn’t do much for Wageningen. But perhaps students shouldn’t look for more say in their degree programmes through the consultation structure as such, but pay more attention to the management style, with which programmes and chair groups are managed top-down like biscuit factories. And they could cite philosopher Ad Verbrugge’s critique of the Dutch management culture and educational policy.

3. Market-driven university
The Maagdenhuis demonstrators see a democratic university as the opposite of a market- driven institution. This is where their criticisms are most relevant to Wageningen University. Coca-Cola, Unilever and Friesland Campina may not provide degree courses in Wageningen, but the possibility of conflicts of interest is never far away in Wageningen. And this image is not just created by campaigning groups such as animal rights organization Wakker Dier, but also by the previous executive board, which placed a strong emphasis on the importance of the ‘golden triangle’: close cooperation between knowledge institutions, the business world and government. The top sector, in which businesses have a big say in universities’ research agenda, is a Wageningen invention, introduced by minister Maxime Verhagen. Something to be proud of, but the suspicion persists that Wageningen UR only does research on topics that are important to big companies and underestimates or ignores the world’s real problems.

There is growing criticism of the top sectors in the Netherlands, and they appear to have had their day. Wageningen students argue for less dependence on research funding from business. Because they do not know the extent of that funding and of the links between researchers and companies, they demand more transparency. The VSNU refrains from passing judgement on the top sectors, but does tell the government: acknowledge the importance of independent research.

But don’t expect any motions in the WUR Council in which student parties call for a ban on research funding by companies. Wageningen students who worry about the market-driven university are in a minority which is not represented on the student council. This council has more to say about a second sports hall than about the seed sector or water rights in Peru. The ideologically committed students in Wageningen are in the Boerengroep [farmers group] or Jongeren Milieu Actief [Young Friends of the Earth], or they are involved in organizing the Food Otherwise conference. They are not looking to influence the university to change; they are creating a world of their own. The departure of Pablo Titonell, who presents an alternative vision of agriculture to that of intensive farming, caused more commotion among students than the latest approval of research project by the AgriFood top sector. The substantial debates about agriculture, sustainability and the biobased economy will go on. And as long as students can go on choosing from a satisfactory range of different points of view put forward by inspiring teacher, they will make their way to this university and will be happy with it.