News - February 4, 2010

Cold fusion

This year the Executive Board is breathing new life into the plans for a full merger of the Van Hall Larenstein schools. But it is no easy task to bridge the distance between Wageningen, Velp and Leeuwarden.

Full merger of the Van Hall Larenstein schools
In some ways, a merger is similar to having your wisdom teeth removed. You go to the dentist without any pain. After the operation you leave the dentist with a swollen cheek, a hefty bill and a risk of infection. But there are examples of successful mergers and transfers. Take the laboratory technology programme at Van Hall Larenstein (VHL), which moved to the HAN University of Applied Sciences in Arnhem and Nijmegen. 'The transfer went smoothly and without any problems', says plant cell biology lecturer Frans Wilms, who made the switch together with four colleagues. His programme was a misfit among the countryside and landscape oriented programmes in Velp. As student numbers were falling, it was decided to hive off lab technology to the HAN. Wilms calls that decision a blessing. 'Nijmegen has a whole cluster of medical and biochemical programmes so it was a straightforward integration.'
The merger that led to VHL itself has not been all plain sailing. The University of Applied Sciences contains the DNA of agricultural colleges and applied universities focussing on agriculture and the countryside in Friesland, Groningen, South Holland, Overijssel and Gelderland, all of which were compelled to merge in the eighties and nineties by the government. In 2003 a merger took place at the board level of Larenstein in Velp and Deventer and the Van Hall Institute in Leeuwarden. However, the two schools remained separate institutions.
A full merger of the institutions was prevented in 2008 by the joint employees' consultative body (GMR) representing the two schools. For the merger has consequences for five similar programmes offered at both Wageningen and Leeuwarden. Their content would need to be aligned for reasons relating to registration. The GMR was afraid that the teaching reforms would be at the expense of quality. 

Travelling circus
In the meantime the merger discussions have flared up again. That is partly because of a change in legislation that will eventually make it impossible for a board to be in charge of more than one university of applied sciences. But people at VHL are not crazy about the idea of full integration. First there is a practical problem: the distance.
It is 30 kilometres from Velp to Wageningen and another 170 kilometres to Leeuwarden. 'It is like a travelling circus around the locations', says Dennis de Jager, a lecturer at Velp and chairman of the Larenstein employees' representative body. 'The whole crowd is forever going to Zwolle for meetings. And that serves no purpose because it doesn't make for more or better teaching. Let's invest our time in providing a good education rather than getting to know each other', says De Jager.
Ab Groen, corporate education director at Wageningen UR, also wants to invest in education. But he actually sees more collaboration within VHL as the best way to achieve that. 'It is strange to have programmes focusing on horses at both Leeuwarden and Wageningen and yet not collaborate. In addition, we want to create a shared set of course options to make it more appealing for a Forestry and Nature Management student in Velp to do an Animal Welfare minor in Leeuwarden, for instance.'  Groen accepts that the distances between the locations are considerable. 'We are not asking people to commute between the locations every week. We are asking them to be prepared to coordinate the teaching programmes and to collaborate.'

Many teaching staff members object to the far-reaching collaboration regarding the teaching content envisaged by the Executive Board, as they are not keen on the idea of major changes. Hans van Haeren, Garden and Landscape Design programme director in Velp, advocates a pragmatic approach. 'You collaborate where that's necessary and desirable. If programmes are related, collaboration will arise naturally and you should encourage that process.' Van Haeren sees fewer possibilities for such diverse programmes as livestock farming and landscape design. 'The pedagogical perspective, the subject didactics and the approach to learning styles in particular are all linked to the field of work; you cannot enforce uniformity.'
Even so, the Executive Board wants to introduce greater unity in the education offered. 'Van Hall Larenstein is a single educational brand. We need to take a good look at how we can create synergy in what is a single organization at three different locations serving different educational markets. You also need to make the education you are offering as all-encompassing as possible', explains Martin Kropff of the Executive Board.
Kropff also expects budget money to be freed up as support services can be arranged more efficiently. 'That will mean more hours available for teaching. A lecturer can be deployed at two locations and the teaching material can be developed jointly.'

The key argument for the merger, then as now, is the size of the agricultural University of Applied Sciences.
'VHL is a relatively small organization, and what is more, one that is spread over three locations. Our environment, the students and the sector are very dynamic factors and so we need to grow to a certain size in order to be able to present a high-quality, efficient University of Applied Sciences', says corporate education director Ab Groen. 'We are not that small at all if you compare us to a music academy or hotel school', Hans Bezuijen, chairman of the GMR and a lecturer in Leeuwarden, points out.
However that may be, Kropff claims that VHL will have more clout if the applied university is legally a single entity. He sees the merger of the schools as a relatively minor administrative step. The GMR chairman Bezuijen agrees that there will be few changes in day-to-day affairs from the practical and organizational point of view as the support services such as the education office, ICT, administration and communication have already undergone integration. He himself says that he 'doesn't take a particularly ideological view'. But he does understand the resistance to the merger.
The Wageningen and Leeuwarden locations have a few similar, small-scale programmes. If the University of Applied Sciences becomes a single institution, those programmes will have to be aligned. Bezuijen: 'That will mean changes. People are afraid they will be given a different job or a different manager. You have to explain why that is necessary.'
The GMR chairman expects the full merger to go through this time round. 'Some groups would prefer to reverse the merger but it is simply not realistic to separate the organizations again. If the Board wants a merger and puts its full weight behind it then it is difficult to stop', thinks Bezuijen. He would be quite happy without the merger, he adds. 'We would be better off focusing on improving the services to students.'
The Executive Board is aware that the merger is a sensitive issue.
Kropff: 'People are not yet sufficiently alive to the opportunities available if you have a single VHL.' However, the rector still believes that awareness will grow. 'Four years ago people were wondering what benefits VHL could get from collaboration with Wageningen University. Now that is clearer and it is not so much of an issue. But now it seems that people are not finding it easy to liaise with the other VHL locations.'
The applied university staff are still waiting for arguments of substance. Marise Haesendonckx, a member of the employees' consultative body and a lecturer in Wageningen: 'If the directors can demonstrate that it really benefits the students and that the merger will result in a better educational product, then they won't hear another word of criticism from us.'

Blood groups
In 2003 the Van Hall Institute in Leeuwarden and Larenstein in Deventer and Velp were merged at the board level to create Van Hall Larenstein
Larenstein, the international agricultural university of applied sciences, was created in 1988 as a result of the merger of the Wageningen laboratory teaching programme Stova, the Rijks Hogere School voor Tuin- en Landschapsinrichting (garden and landscape design college) in Boskoop and the Hogere Bosbouw en Cultuurtechnische School (forestry and land development college) in Velp.
The Van Hall Institute is also a combined product. In 1995 the Professor Van Hall Institute in Groningen and the Agrarische Hogeschool Friesland (Friesland agricultural college) merged. The latter was itself the product of a merger between the Rijks Hogere School voor Levensmiddelentechnologie (food technology college) in Bolsward and the Christelijke Hogere Landbouwschool (Christian agricultural college) in Leeuwarden.