Holland's international reputation for consensus disgraced by WAU Business Plan
The WAU's plan for implementing the 25 million guilder cutbacks proposes some changes that threaten its mandate for greater internationalisation. A more interdisciplinary approach, and integration of the Dutch and international programmes are generally applauded. But the path proposed and the lack of discussion allowed within the process have met with great consternation. The cuts to MSc programmes are no exception
From the point of view of the WAU's international programmes, the Business Plan's call to switch to an overall BSc/MSc model is considered a good move. It means that WAU will be more in line with university systems elsewhere, more courses will be available in English, and costs will be reduced as parallel MSc courses will no longer be offered in Dutch. However, the idea of a two-year MSc, integrating Dutch and international students, also raises some doubts. One international student's comment: One attraction of an MSc to me was to be able to study with a group of older students who have professional experience. If courses are followed together with younger Dutch students, then this aspect will become diluted. Bert Speelman, head of Education and one of the nine developers of the Business Plan, defends this move: This integration has already existed for years in the Aquaculture MSc, and we haven't encountered any problems.
According to Speelman, reverting to the 24-month MSc will provide higher quality education. However, Frits Staudt (Programme Director of the Tropical Forestry MSc) has some concerns about this: If international students have to follow a two year study, then they will be separated from their families and jobs even longer. WAU may also encounter problems in competing with shorter MSc programmes in the UK and North America, and it will probably lead to a reduction in the number of scholarships available. Staudt also foresees serious consequences of the Plan for the quality and reputation of Wageningen's international programmes: The cutbacks call for fewer services for international students which is likely to affect the quality of their work. It is unclear what will happen to the extra support provided by MSc Programme Directors and the Dean's Office.
For some MSc Programme Coordinators, the Business Plan is no cause for alarm. Henk Udo, from Animal Sciences: Our MSc programme will become much stronger through the changes proposed because there will be more courses available, and besides, it is already quite well integrated with the Dutch programme. Similar comments also came from Agricultural Economics and GIS
The results of the Business Plan become more ambiguous, however, when considering MSc programmes which have no Dutch counterpart. Cees Leeuwis (Acting Chair of the MAKS programme committee) is clearly uneasy: Paradoxically, there is not one word about the MAKS programme in the new plan, while it has a good international reputation and attracts a respectable number of students each year. Programme Coordinator Andre Boon adds: The MAKS programme is already doing precisely what the university is calling for in terms of integration. We focus on students in mid-career who have a technical background but who need to brush up on their social sciences. Speelman was unable to offer much more clarity on the future of MAKS except to say that it will probably fall under one of the 12 as yet undefined inter-specialisations. Leeuwis is concerned about this option: It is unlikely that the programme will be able to maintain its different thesis tracks and its autonomy. So it might well cease to be an attractive and recognisable programme for international students.
The disappearance of recognisability was a point brought up by a number of Programme Directors. The MAKS and Tropical Forestry MScs both fall within the Business Plan's proposal to eliminate programmes focusing on tropical and rural development in favour of their integration within wider programmes. Another recognisable MSc is Ecological Agriculture, which will be integrated along with Crop Sciences into Plant Sciences. Kees Eveleens (Programme Director for both): It will be important to maintain a separate profile, even if MSc specialisations now fall under different programme headings. Terms like ecological agriculture, tropical forestry and greenhouse horticulture have great powers of attraction overseas.
The plan's proposal on how to integrate the technical sciences with the social sciences has met with scepticism. The TAO (Technology and Agrarian Development) chair group is one of the victims of the cutbacks, and although it does not have an MSc, it attracts a lot of international students precisely because of its special integration of social and technical sciences. By cutting this chair group, the Business Plan appears to undermine its mission's interdisciplinary orientation, claim many of the participants
During a highly-charged and packed debate on the Business Plan, organised by OtherWise at the Wereld on Monday November 30th, Patricia Howard-Borjas, professor of the Gender Studies chair group (also set to become redundant) put it plainly: If staff is being severely reduced in the social sciences, how can we finally accomplish the integration of social with technical sciences? The fact that the development programmes have suffered disproportionately from the cuts was the main topic of Monday's debate. All except one of the development-oriented chairs will either be discontinued or merge with more generalised programmes, and research capacity will be reduced by more than 50%. As Norman Long, soon to be redundant chair of Rural Development Studies put it at the debate: The sources that have contributed to the WAU's strong international reputation, the tropical, rural development and interdisciplinary sciences are precisely what are being cut.These cuts will affect many of the international partners as well as reducing the appeal of WAU to foreign students and researchers
The social science cutbacks will affect many other MSc programmes. Professor Leen Hordijk, programme committee chair of Environmental Sciences, declared this to be his greatest concern: If the social science lecturers have to leave, then an important part of our programmes will come under serious pressure. Although the Business Plan aims to eliminate Environmental Science as an educational programme direction as well, Hordijk does not believe that the two environmental MScs will be discontinued as they both attract a high number of students
Finally, international students are dismayed by the fact that the Business Plan has only been made available in Dutch, excluding them from any discussion on its consequences. The Business Plan was presented to the university on November 19th and is to be finalised on December 16th, allowing less than three weeks for reactions. The university's Board of Directors as well as the Business Plan designers were invited to join in Monday's discussion, but they were conspicuous in their absence
Linden Vincent, professor of the Irrigation chair group, provided the final comment to Monday's debate: Holland has an international reputation for consensus in its decision-making, and I am astounded by the lack of room for discussion on major plans in an important Dutch university.