Organisation - March 23, 2017

‘This university takes education very seriously’

Linda van der Nat,Albert Sikkema

He was the Education Institute’s director for five years. Now Tiny van Boekel is due to retire. He says innovations in education will not be enough to let Wageningen keep pace with the growing student numbers. ‘Some form of evening teaching is unavoidable.’

photos Sven Menschel

The total Wageningen student population grew by 43 percent in five years. Is Wageningen’s model of small class sizes starting to show cracks?
‘We’re doing well, despite the growing student numbers. We don’t have many dropouts. Other universities have dropout rates of up to 40 percent, whereas we have less than 15 percent. We have highly motivated students and we still get positive assessments in student surveys. The individual treatment, the contact between students and teachers, is still the defining feature of Wageningen. I do often hear that we are at bursting point and I think that’s right. I am full of admiration for the effort and dedication of our staff, who always manage to deliver despite the incredibly high workload. But eventually cracks will start to appear and we need to take action before that happens.’

‘Growth is not bad, but it does need to be controlled’

What do you feel is the best way to accommodate this growth? There are degree programmes with an enrolment limit, the university is experimenting with classes in the evening and it is also investing in online education.
‘In Wageningen, three degree programmes have opted for an enrolment limit. Personally I’m not keen on enrolment limits but I can see it was necessary for Nutrition and Health as they were unable to cope with the student numbers. The same applies for Biotechnology and Molecular Life Sciences. The practicals in those programmes are the main bottleneck in terms of the available space. We can’t accommodate all the students we have now in the practicals and there are not enough thesis places. But I see enrolment limits as a temporary solution.

One aspect of our education philosophy is that we want students to be much more active, and online teaching is one way of achieving that. If I compare us to life sciences universities in other countries, we are very much in the vanguard when it comes to online education. Here, lecturers are contributing their own ideas. The Food Technology degree programme is a good example. The practicals for this degree now incorporate computer support. Students are given computer-based assignments and are only able to progress to the practical experiments once they have understood why they have to do something. In the past, the lecturer explained everything but this is far more efficient. However, the key benefit is that it improves the learning effect. In my day, you would go to a practical and only read the manual when you got there. That’s much more structured now.

Concepts such as the ‘flipped classroom’ — in which students watch informational clips in their own time and can then ask questions and discuss issues during lectures — are also innovations that can really enhance teaching. I don’t believe in telling degree programmes that they have to use a certain approach but we do try to steer lecturers and programmes in a particular direction when they come up with proposals for innovations.’

 There is a lot of resistance to evening classes. Students and teachers think the classrooms could be used more efficiently. What is your position on evening teaching?
‘We can certainly make better use of the classrooms. We have carried out Wi-Fi measurements to check whether the rooms that have been reserved by teachers are actually being used. This showed that between 10 and 15 percent of the reserved classrooms were vacant. Teachers are now more aware that they shouldn’t book rooms that they don’t need. But I think some form of evening teaching in addition to this will be unavoidable. It’s not the nicest of measures so I can understand the resistance. The only alternative is to invest in new teaching buildings and that would be at the expense of the education budget. I would prefer to use part of the evening and make better use of the existing buildings. Unless we grow so big that we say: let’s put up an additional building. I think it will be a combination of more efficient timetables and evening teaching.’

‘Some groups currently make more from education than from research’

Classes in the evening also affect the quality of the teaching. Students say they are less able to concentrate in the evening.
‘That is indeed one of the findings from the survey among participants in the evening teaching pilot, that people are less motivated in the evening and attendance is slightly lower. Even so, the exam results are no worse so there is no reason to worry about that. I also think it’s a fear of the unknown to a certain extent. International students have much less of a problem with classes in the evening as they are already used to it. And the new cohort of first-years won’t know any different, they will just accept it. Student events will simply start a bit later.’

In your view, what is more important to the university, education or research?
‘This university takes education very seriously. Education is one of the criteria in the tenure track: what contribution do you make to education, what ideas do you have about this, how do you deal with new insights, how do you incorporate them in your teaching? And it’s also important to note that teaching is paid well. You see that some chair groups make more from education than research. That’s not ideal either, though, as it means they use teaching funds to keep the research up to standard. At present, it is very difficult to acquire new research projects so I can understand if people are looking at options that will let them continue doing research. So I’m not saying it’s wrong but it is a sign of the times. It is actually very important for education to have research being carried out.’

Do you intervene if teaching funds are being used for research?
‘I don’t think you should be too quick to take action in such cases. I was a professor holding a chair once myself so I know how it would feel if we were to say: you must spend all the teaching money on education. Then we would be depriving professors of their responsibility. I do feel I can hold them to account for their educational performance, though. If they manage to acquire research contracts with teaching money and still deliver high-quality education, that’s OK with me. But if they let the quality of the teaching slide, I take action.’

Are you actually saying that research is suffering more from the growth than teaching?
‘Yes, in the case of groups with growing student numbers. It’s a complex issue. If a chair group has more students doing its modules, it receives more money and is able to appoint more lecturers. But the new employees also have to do research because of the tenure track. And if it starts to become very difficult to find the money for that, we have a problem. So I can understand that chair groups are reluctant to use the teaching funds to appoint tenure-track staff. Now you also hear PhD candidates complaining that they are having to do too much teaching. Graduation projects are often supervised by PhD candidates. I have the impression that the number of PhD candidates is declining, or at any rate that it’s becoming more difficult to acquire those projects. If their numbers are decreasing, that is at odds with the increasing student numbers.

I think we need to be a bit more flexible in our tenure track policy to free up more room for teaching. But we need to keep a proper link between teaching and research. The goal of having teachers who are also researchers is a very important one. Our philosophy is still that our teaching should follow our research.’

What is the biggest challenge for WUR in the next few years?
‘Growth is not bad, far from it, but it does need to be controlled. At present, it is perhaps a little too fast. The disaster scenario is that people become so overworked that they are no longer able to pay proper attention to the students — whom they need. If we grow too fast, we won’t be able to take the necessary measures in time to get all hands on deck. If government funding improves and the two-percent rule [which determines that the education budget cannot rise or fall by more than two percent a year, ed.] is abolished, I think we can resolve this issue. But if there is an impasse in national politics and we no longer get enough funding, we will have to take action. Then things will go wrong.’

Outgoing director of the Educational Institute Tiny van Boekel: ‘Students get actively involved if they are given the opportunity. That is why I listen to them.’
Outgoing director of the Educational Institute Tiny van Boekel: ‘Students get actively involved if they are given the opportunity. That is why I listen to them.’

What action should WUR take then?
‘Selection on admission would be one option. I am somewhat hesitant about this because I think people who have the necessary prior qualifications have the right to carry on, even if they were graded as an unimpressive seven rather than a brilliant nine. At the very least I would want selection based on motivation because my fear with selection based on grades us that you ignore other valuable qualities such as social skills and creativity. I would find it a shame if the selection process rejected people who used to be lazy and never worked hard or the late developers. But it is an option and I think we should give it serious consideration.

I think there are still unexplored opportunities for redistributing the workload, perhaps by sticking less rigidly to your own programme. Instead of each professor defending their personal fiefdom, people should talk to one another at the departmental level. This is not an accusation — the system tends to encourage that. So I would prefer to have a system that gave more room for cooperation.’

Is that possible?
‘Yes, if we are a little more flexible when dealing with the individual chair groups. As far as I’m concerned it is fine if one group is slightly in the red if they compensate for that in other areas, for example by doing more research if a fellow chair group does a bit more teaching. But that is up to the science group directors.’

As the director of the Education Institute, you had frequent contact with student committee members. How did that cooperation go?
‘The role students play in our education, as we have organized that, is really fantastic. I think it’s great to see how motivated they are and how much effort they put into the committee work in the Student Council, the Education Institute and the programme committees. I’ve seen students achieving breakthroughs there on several occasions; they are not fooled by games the chair groups play. They can see when something is not in the interest of the education. I would see it as a real shame if they were to be given less influence at that level. Students have a sense of responsibility, they are critical and I think much of our innovation in teaching is supported by them. They are not mere consumers. If they are given the opportunity, they get actively involved. That is why I listen to what they have to say. I think we can learn a lot from our students. It is not just them learning from us; we all learn together.’

Involved and approachable

Students have always found outgoing director of the Education Institute Tiny van Boekel very approachable, says Student Council member Anne Swank. ‘He likes feisty students who have critical minds and broach problems. He is not at all set in his ways when it comes to education – quite the opposite in fact. My nicest memory of him is when he had a beer with us at a student party after an education conference in Stuttgart. Show me a student who can say she’s danced to Bohemian Rhapsody with the Dean of Education. That’s how involved he is with students.’ René Kwakkel, programme director at Animal Sciences, sees Van Boekel as a modest man. ‘Almost a bit shy even, and not someone who jumps in and says what he thinks about an issue straightaway. Sometimes I think: express your view a bit sooner. But Tiny listens first. He makes very good use of the knowledge of his staff and students. But he certainly has views of his own all the while. He is a strong advocate of digitalization in education, for instance.’