Nieuws - 16 december 2010

How idealistic are the students of 2010?

Suzanne Overbeek

Are Wageningen students really as idealistic as they are sometimes thought to be? In response to Resource questionnaire they do not rate themselves very highly on this point. 'If I had more money and time I would do more.' Strikingly, foreign students scored higher.

Starry-eyed idealists, hippies, trendy-lefties: these are the traditional associations with Wageningen students. To be expected perhaps: a university at which nature and climate are among the main degree subjects is bound to harbour its fair share of idealistic students, isn't it? But is this in fact the case, and does it apply across the board?
We wanted to find out, and the only way to do so was to ask the students themselves. A questionnaire, then. And what did that mean in practice? We distributed questionnaires during the lunch hour at various locations in Wageningen UR and collected them an hour later. We got a good response: 310 students, 70 at VHL and 240 at the university. In a second phase, the questionnaire was translated and given to international students in the Forum, which brought us 70 more responses. These were analysed separately so as to be able to compare them with the responses of Dutch students. More on that later.
Only just
First of all, how do students see themselves? In the questionnaire, they had to give themselves a grade on a scale from one to ten. One stood for 'materialistic, focused on own wellbeing' and ten stood for 'a real do-gooder, totally focused on a higher goal'. On that scale, Wageningen students could just, but only just, be considered idealistic: they scored on average 5.5. A bare pass, then - or just a fail perhaps, to someone who really does not rate idealism at all.
There did not seem to be any difference between men and women, but there was a difference between VHL and the university, with VHL students scoring slightly higher (5.7) than their university counterparts, which may come as a surprise to some. The differences between students from different study programmes were bigger, and for four of the university study programmes there were enough responses to be able to calculate a meaningful average. Biology and Animal Sciences students scored around the overall average: 5.7 and 5.2 respectively. Nutrition & Health students let the side down a bit with their 4.8. But by far the biggest idealists were the International Development Studies students, who scored 7.6.

'Animal welfare sometimes seems ridiculous'
Percy Cicilia, chair of the international students association ISOW
'Some international students are from countries where human rights are violated. I think that is why they have a sharp eye for the importance of human rights. Terrible things are happening for example in Ecuador, Venezuela, South Africa and Vietnam. Students from those and other countries are faced with problems like human rights during their childhood and throughout their lives. Those problems are a reality to them, they are at close quarters to them. They want to fight for their principles, make a difference.
Animal Welfare sometimes seems ridiculous. When we look at how extremely well animals are generally treated within the Netherlands it is messed up to know that some groups of people are treated worse than a cat. I think people are more important than animals. Of course, animals can be pretty and they can be part of the family. But why does nobody care about the Romanian people for instance? I think that international students in general care more about people. Animals come second.
The university is a place to gather knowledge, not a political navigation system. During classes, there is an overload of information on everything that is wrong in Africa, but scandals in Europe or in the USA are never discussed. Wageningen specializes in life sciences, agriculture, farmers, food, and every course has to be sustainable or green. International students notice that and sometimes this environmental aspect is just too much.' SO
Idealistic indeed
Of course, a rating like this does not tell us everything. It is more important to get an idea of the role of idealism in students' day-to-day lives. There were six statements intended to provide insight into this, ranging from 'I regularly give money to charity' to 'I want to dedicate my career to the work of an idealistic organization.' Respondents could choose from five options on a spectrum from 'strongly agree' to 'strongly disagree'.
Anyone who thought of Wageningen students as passionate world-reformers will be a little disappointed in the results. To five of the six questions, most of the respondents tended towards the 'disagree' end of the spectrum, showing themselves to be less than idealistic. For example, most did not give anything to charity, did not buy organic or Fair Trade goods, and were not at all willing to do voluntary work for a charitable organization. There was bad news for student union WSO too, as only 10 percent take part in their campaigns for a good cause. But these are very practical commitments that cost money or time. When it comes to the choice of study programme, students show their more idealistic side, and on the statement 'I want to dedicate my career to the work of an idealistic organization', Wageningen students scored rather high: one on three agreed wholeheartedly, another third was neutral. 
There are two conclusions you could draw from this. An optimistic one: students are idealistic on the big issues (choice of degree course and career). And a cynical one: students call themselves idealistic on issues that do not immediately cost them time or money. Our survey cannot tell us which of the interpretations is true. What it does show, is the role played by pragmatic considerations. For example, one respondent wrote apologetically, 'If I had more money and time I would do more'. That sounds sweet. Touching, almost. But to a diehard idealist, it could of course sound like an easy way out. After all, when do ever have 'enough' money and time?
'The world could use a few more idealists!'
Kim van Groningen,  HappyJMA Wageningen ('organizes very happy local activities and small friendly environmental actions')
'I was a bit shocked by that low score, only 5.5. I had expected Wageningen students to score between a 7 and an 8. I don't know how it compares to earlier times, but people often say that Wageningen students used to be more idealistic than they are now. I think it's a pity, because the world really needs more idealists!
The figures on buying organic and Fair Trade products could be explained in two different ways. If course it is clear that students in general are not very interested in buying Fair trade or organic, but on the other hand 60 percent of them say they are not totally against it. I reckon this percentage is higher than the national average, so I am not dissatisfied with it, although  of course I wouldn't mind if it was higher.'   KvdA

Which ideals spur Wageningen students into action in 2010? In first place: combating climate change. A good 43 percent of the Dutch students (at both VHL and the university) put this in their top three. Then there is a gap followed by three themes close together: improving human rights, fair trade and increasing animal welfare.
Pacifism does not appear to be flourishing in Wageningen these days. Whereas their parents were still joining mass demonstrations against nuclear weapons in the nineteen nineties, 'reducing war/ global conflict' seems to be less important to today's students. The only thing that scores even lower is 'improving the position of students'. So at least the students cannot be accused of self-centredness. Which is definitely good news for the secretary of state for education Halbe Zijlstra and his plans to tighten the financial thumbscrews on students.
There are a couple of interesting differences behind these averages, though. Women score higher on climate change, human rights and animal welfare, for instance, while men seem to have more affinity with Fair Trade. Human rights scores strikingly low among students at Van Hall Larenstein. This theme, which includes such issues as political prisoners and child labour, scores 23 percent, even lower than the position of students (29 percent).

'You don't get far with peace, love and understanding any more'
Peter Oosterveer, sociologist with the Environmental Policy chair group
'Idealism is a term from the nineteen sixties. It had positive associations then, but now many people associate it with naivety. People have become more pragmatic. There is still idealism, but it focuses on themes you can really experience yourself,  like  climate change. These developments have both advantages and disadvantages. People used to have closed minds and be inflexible and dogmatic, but that has changed. On the other hand, people will no longer readily make long-term commitments. They want to keep their options open. That doesn't necessarily mean that students have become more materialistic; they are just more pragmatic than they used to be.
Nowadays activism is expressed more in choices in daily life. That may be less loud or visible, but that doesn't make it any less committed. Through the higher pressure, student careers are shorter. Students have less time and are therefore less inclined to stand up for causes outside their immediate field of vision. Contemporary idealism has lost that naivety, it is more focussed and more time-consuming.  You don't get far with just 'peace, love and understanding' any more. TR
'Improving China'
With almost 1,500 students from about 100 different countries, Wageningen is one of the most international universities in the Netherlands. A striking outcome of the questionnaire is that the foreign students are considerably more idealistic than the Dutch ones. Their average score was 6.4: almost a whole point higher than their Dutch counterparts. And that is not the only difference. Foreign students are drawn to different ideals than Dutch ones. The issue they mention most often is human rights, with climate change in second place. 'Reducing war/ global conflict' is high in the rankings too, whereas it did not seem to matter much to Dutch students. On the other hand, animal rights scored very low among foreign students.
Human rights and global conflict therefore seem to issues that foreign students relate to more than Dutch students do. What may play a role in this is the fact that many foreign students come from regions where democratic and political stability cannot be taken for granted as they often are in the Netherlands.
This comes out in the respondents' comments on this question too. One respondent expressed his/her ideal as simply 'improving China'. Another wrote 'better basic education', an ideal that did not feature on the Dutch list. The foreign students who come here clearly feel a concern about the issues they see in the world. This was clear from the  responses to the statement 'I chose my study programme because it will best equip me to help create a better world'. Only 28 percent of the Dutch students agreed with this to any extent, compared with 57 percent of the foreign students.

'Younger students are more idealistic because they are more naive'
Jillis Herweijer, student of Management, Economics and Consumer Studies. Under the name JH, a well-known opinion leader at
'If you consider it rightwing to be responsible for your own actions and get the best out of yourself, then I am rightwing, yes. I give myself a 2.5 for idealism. Wageningen is very leftwing and I think it always will be. At school elections, the labour party always wins. Later there is a shift to the right. I find people with complicated dreadlocks pretty irritating sometimes. Okay, each to their own, but I am not likely to make friends with them. Younger students are more idealistic because they are more naive and their worldview is less complete than that of older students. I think idealism declines the older you get and the further you get in your studies. I do think it is a good thing that a lot of attention is paid in Wageningen to themes such as biofuel and food quality. I try to keep a social conscience, so I don't dump garbage or waste too much energy. Other than that I do my own thing. It is very good that up-to-date knowledge about sustainability is applied, but from a practical point of view.
I do have my doubts about 53 percent saying that climate change is important when it is absolutely not sure that any climate change is taking place. Let alone that people have played a role in it. It annoys me that so many assumptions are made in the lectures on that. You can see the personal views of the lecturers too clearly in what they teach.' TR

Less idealistic than their parents
Can we extract any trends from these figures? A score of 5.5 means that the students can only just be described as idealistic. But does that make them less idealistic than their predecessors in the 1970s, when the universities were full of people who wanted to change the world? Or have they just become a bit more pragmatic about things? The views of the students themselves: 37 percent think they are less idealistic than the students of thirty years ago; 23 percent think that is nonsense, and 37 percent just don't know. So the majority do seem to think their parents were just a bit more starry-eyed than they are. But it is not an overwhelming majority. 'Students are idealistic in a different way these days', said one of the students matter-of-factly. There was no comment as to whether this was a good thing or a bad one. One of the foreign students did have a strong view on this matter: 'Strong idealisms are the basis for wars and tyrannies.'   
'Demonstrations are old-fashioned'
Karmijn van den Berg, chair of the Wageningen Student Organization (WSO)
'Students still stand up for their ideals, but they do so in a different way than previous generations. They have less time and money to spare for working towards their ideals. Something like an online petitions such as does work.  But demonstrations are old-fashioned. Student organizations must find new ways of conducting campaigns. In the 1970s and 80s, WSO organized a lot of demonstrations, against apartheid or in solidarity with the miners in Spain, for example. In the 1980s, a different university building was occupied every year by groups of hundreds of students. Nowadays, that is far less of an automatic thing. Last year only 60 Wageningen students joined a demonstration against cuts in higher education. But on 11 December, our demo in the centre of Wageningen did attract more than 600 students. It seems they can still be mobilized when it really matters. If you compare the Netherlands with Surinam, for example, education here is pretty well organized, and I can understand that people find other, more distant ideals such as combating climate change more important. Nationally, Wageningen, Nijmegen and Groningen are the three student towns with the most idealistic take on the world, in terms of nature and environment.'
Delft and Zwolle score no better
At Resource's request, the magazines of the Technical University of Delft and Windesheim applied sciences institute in Zwolle distributed the same questionnaire to 256 and 503 students respectively. The results are strikingly similar. The technicians of Delft give themselves an average of 5.3 for idealism, Wageningen students a 5.5, while Zwolle students are very marginally more inclined to rate themselves as dreamers, with a 5.6.
There are bigger differences in the kinds of ideals that students strive for. Climate change is the biggest concern in Delft (mentioned by 55 percent) and Wageningen (53 percent): far more so that in Zwolle (30 percent). There, the students are more worried about human rights (54 percent, compared with 29 percent in both Delft and Wageningen).
Wageningen stands out among the three towns when it comes to concern about fair trade (38 percent). Zwolle is in the lead with concern about the position of students (38 percent), whereas Delft students appear to care the most about reducing global conflict (40 percent).
/Kees van de Ark, Gaby van Caulil, Rob Goossens, Suzanne Overbeek, Tom Rijntjes