Science - June 15, 2006

Bos: ‘Universities are too average’

The leader of the Dutch Labour Party (PvdA), Wouter Bos, visited Wageningen last week to give a guest lecture at Studium Generale about his recently published book ‘Dit land kan zoveel beter’ (This country can do much better’).

Just minutes before the start the seats filled up. The student union WSO handed out bookmarkers with the message: ‘Strict selection doesn’t lead to perfection’. Wouter Bos entered the hall accompanied by loud applause and crutches, the result of a knee operation. He started his presentation with newspaper headlines that reflect the sombre views of the Dutch at the moment. Bos: ‘The world is facing many changes, and at the same time there is little to hold onto. We live in a society where we feel we have to face things alone. This feeling of having nothing to hold onto leads to sombreness and cynicism.’

The audience listens attentively. ‘In my book I want to give a positive account of what is wrong with the Netherlands. The mixture of the socio-economic gap with ethnicity and culture is leading to a dismal prospect of a permanent ethnic underclass.’

If this is to be prevented, according to Bos, a different approach is needed than that of the current cabinet. Good and accessible education is one of the PvdA’s focal points for bringing about social change. The audience, which up till now has been reasonably quiet, starts to stir. ‘You talk about solidarity, cohesion and making education accessible, but at the same time you argue in favour of ‘top institutes’, which will make education more expensive,’ a member of the audience observes. Bos: ‘Only on condition that students can borrow the amount of money needed. But those who are capable of achieving more than the average level, will also earn it back later in terms of a higher salary. Surely that we can allow that to cost more as well?’

A lecturer at the back of the hall stands up: ‘Why don’t we try to raise the level of all university education?’ Bos answers that there is more need for diversity than for equality. ‘The level of our universities is too average. Exceptionally good people should have the opportunity to develop their talents. Average is too low for them. Why not get as much out of people as they have to offer? These talents are going unused at the moment.’ The audience nods in agreement. ‘For average talent there are average provisions, for top talent there should be a top level. That is what accessibility is about.’

As Bos gets up to go, the WSO bookmarkers have already been packed away. The politician will return in September, when he opens the academic year. / LH

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