Nieuws - 18 augustus 2011

Endless change

How many colleges and institutes have been absorbed into Wageningen UR by now? No one seems to be able to say precisely. But the modest agricultural course that started in Wageningen in 1873 turned out, against all expectations, to be a permanent fixture. A classic case of the ugly duckling that grew up to be a swan.

If things had taken a slightly different turn Wageningen would be no more of an academic hub today than Borculo, 's Heerenburg or Warffum. These small Dutch towns were in the running in the nineteenth century as potential sites for an agricultural college. Because however they may now be obscured by fancy course title such as Sustainable Food Production, Animal Sciences or Coast and Marine management, Wageningen's roots are essentially agricultural.
In 1815, King Willem I took the first steps towards higher agricultural education in the Netherlands. He installed chairs of Rural Economics at the Universities of Leiden, Utrecht and Groningen, with a view to equipping pastors with a knowledge of the principles of farming that they could pass on to farmers in their congregations. It was a non-starter as the pastors had no affinity with their new task. So then the baton passed to private enterprise, and Professor H.C van Hall founded the School of Rural Economics in Groningen and Haren in 1842. The school worked closely with the university of Groningen but Van Hall's innovative ideas about combining practical and theoretical education met with opposition, including from the prime minister, Thorbecke. In the end it was forced to close in 1871. But the idea of higher agricultural education had taken root.
New initiatives were launched in Warffum (1870) and Wageningen (1873). The new course in Wageningen was really a sort of top-up to the existing municipal higher education college (HBS). Partly thanks to the secure funding pledged by the municipal council, education inspector W.C.H. Staring was particularly impressed by Wageningen. 'Country folk', he declared, need not fear that their sons attending the college 'would develop a strong yearning for city life or adopt city habits.' The area also offered a wide range of types of soil and of farm. And a final advantage it had was being close to the railway.
Miniature higher education college
The new school got off to a hesitant start but, partly thanks to the good climate on the sandy soils of Wageningen, it managed to lure the best teachers away from Warffum, which closed its doors in 1875. Wageningen, on the other hand, was designated National Agricultural College in 1876 and went on to become the Higher Agricultural and Forestry School. By the time the first girl applied (a teacher's daughter) in 1901, the school averaged between 60 and 100 students.
In 1918 the school was given academic status with the name of Agricultural Higher Education College. Not without some opposition, if only because voices were raised in Delft against graduates from a 'less rigorous course' being given the title of ingenieur. But the fiercest opposition came from Utrecht University, which was aiming to provide academic agricultural education and research. These critics did not mince their words. The spiritual atmosphere at a 'miniature higher education college' was said to be 'unsavoury' and people there would be bound to 'lose sight of universal science.' But Utrecht had to eat its words, not least because through the arrival of a number of agricultural research institutes since 1877, Wageningen had gained considerable authority in its field.
Decades later came a second offensive. In 1996, a letter arrived in which Utrecht University offered to take Wageningen University under its wing. Student numbers were in decline and had gone down to 900 new students a year, so that Wageningen's independent survival was under threat. According to the letter, the Faculty of Veterinary Science at Utrecht University rejected as many students as came to Wageningen University every year.
Van Hall Larenstein
Worries about losing autonomy were therefore among the reasons for a thoroughgoing reorganization. In 2000, Wageningen UR was formed from the university and the agricultural research institutes, which were already in the throes of a merger. In 2004, space was made for VHL higher education institute, itself a merger in 2003 of the Van Hall Institute in Leeuwarden and Larenstein International Agricultural College in Velp. And these institutions brought quite some experience of mergers to their arranged marriage.
The Van Hall Institute was the result of a merger in 1995, in which the Friesland Agricultural College was absorbed into the Professor Van Hall Institute in Groningen - a descendent in name only of the School of Agricultural Economics from 1842.
Larenstein College was named after the monastic estate in Velp to which the Higher Education College of Forestry and Irrigation moved in 1974. The programme offered here grew out of the courses set up by the Dutch rural development organization the KNHS in 1903 for forest owners and keepers. In 1988 this was merged with the Wageningen laboratory course Stova (later closed down), the National College for Garden and Landscape Design in Boskoop and the National Higher Agricultural College in Deventer (for tropical agriculture). The new partners all moved to Larenstein, with the exception of Deventer, which resisted the move tooth and nail. In the end, this school was relocated in 2006 to the Forum in Wageningen, at the heart of the Wageningen community.

Abbreviations guide
At the end of the 20th century, Wageningen must have been an Eldorado for designers and printers of letter paper. Within the umbrella organization the Dienst Landbouwkundig Onderzoek (DLO), later the DLO Foundation, mergers and name changes followed each other thick and fast. Just to take one example, the creation of Plant Research International (PRI) in 2000 spelled the end of countless small botanical kingdoms. Are you holding tight? IVT (plant breeding), SVP (field crop breeding), ITAL (atomic energy application) and the gene bank (later autonomous as the CGN) merged into the CPO, which had not existed for a year before it was merged with the CRZ, itself a merger of the RIVRO (breeds research) and the RPVZ (seed research). The resulting combination, the CPRO (later CPRO-DLO) eventually merged with the IPO (Plant diseases) and the AB - a merger of the CABO (agrobiological research) and the IB (soil fertility). Now, well over ten years later, there is little trace of all these bodies at the PRI, which moved into the new Radix building on the Wageningen campus, where research is no longer organized along the lines of the old categories, but more thematically.