Nieuws - 10 maart 2011

Top-class institution or farming college?

Does the academic world take Wageningen University seriously twenty-five years on or does everyone else still see us as a provincial college for farmers' sons?

Robbert Dijkgraaf
Chair of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW)
'The academic world has been taking a lot of interest recently in Wageningen University. And rightly so in my opinion. The University has built up a strong position and made clear-cut choices for disciplines that are firmly anchored in the organization. I am particularly pleased to see that Wageningen has gone in for fundamental research in a big way, alongside the applied research that has traditionally been the institution's forte. That is reflected in the academic prizes it is getting. They are clear evidence of the scientific world's respect, a world that can be very critical and certainly never hands out compliments if they are not deserved. Wageningen is also a recognised brand abroad, especially in Asia. They are particularly good at having a global overview of specializations and knowing where to shop for them. The Netherlands is on their shopping list for water management, but also for agriculture, with Wageningen as the place to be. You could call it the academic Cruyff effect. I think other academic institutions could learn from this. They too need to make sure they are visible and to celebrate their success stories. Build on what you have achieved in the past and make use of your own strengths.'

Maaike Verhoek
Vice-chair of the LSVb students union
'Of course, Wageningen is a bit of a special case as a university because it is aimed at a specific target group. The technical universities do that too, but this aspect is perhaps even stronger in Wageningen. That certainly applies to the student union as Wageningen falls partly under a different ministry and is therefore not always involved to the same extent in the discussions we hold with the Minister of Education. Another thing I notice about Wageningen is its international character. Our member organisation in Wageningen, WSO, holds its consultations with the university in English. It's rather strange to see that. Sometimes Wageningen even seems physically further away because it is so difficult to get to by public transport. First the train and then you have to get a bus from Ede to Wageningen. That was why it was nice to see so many people from Wageningen involved in the protests in January. They held their own big demonstration in the centre of Wageningen and organized buses to The Hague. We were surprised and pleased at that. Wageningen suddenly seemed just that little bit closer.'

Sophie in 't Veld

Member of the European Parliament for D66 in Brussels
'I actually studied the history of the Middle Ages in Leiden, so I was a real humanities student. Sometimes I would be sitting there in a cold building like a monk trying to figure out medieval handwriting. That was why I found the research atmosphere in Wageningen, the few times I was there, really inspiring. I associate Wageningen mainly with its particular combination of teaching, research and business, and with the interaction and synergy that produces. Combine that with the fact that it has specialized in a limited number of themes and you get an institution that is clearly a cut above the rest. This fits in really well with 'EU 2020', the vision for the future that the European Union is taking as its roadmap for the next few decades. If you hear all the reports, it sometimes seems as if everything is going wrong in the Netherlands, or that we are on the brink of disaster. But a number of sectors, including Wageningen, prove that the Netherlands really does have innovative energy.'

Ben van Raaij
Science journalist for the Volkskrant newspaper
'I basically have a favourable impression of Wageningen science. I consider Wageningen to be one of the better Dutch universities in my discipline, biology-related subjects. It may be relatively small but size is not so important in research. I have also worked at the University of Twente, and there I saw that your best chance of excelling is by concentrating on your strengths. Wageningen does that a lot and this has gained it international respect. The only thing I think the university needs to watch out for is that its close collaboration with the agricultural sector and the food industry does not endanger the independence of its research. The generally held view of the university is that this is a real risk. Researchers therefore need to make their position clear at all times and never be tempted to just say what their paymasters want to hear. If you take good care then it is perfectly possible to carry out research for private parties and still be independent. In the end it is the private sector that benefits the most from this.'

Malou Willemars
Chair of the PhD candidates Network of the Netherlands

'Wageningen proudly promotes itself as Europe's most important university for the life sciences. Its mission is 'To explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life'. The University also boasts of its 220 successful PhDs a year. It is clear Wageningen is not suffering from false modesty. But fortunately Wageningen is staying pretty down to earth despite its swagger and flourishing condition. That can be seen, for example, in the way the Dean of the Graduate School stands up for his Dutch PhD students. He sees them as fully-fledged members of staff who carry out useful work and should be treated accordingly. You could say: if the cow feels happy it will produce better milk. 
But perhaps the nicest example of Wageningen's talent to combine a worldly approach with a down-to-earth attitude can be found in the PhD rules. They contain a fictitious example of a thesis reporting on exploratory research into 'metropolitan agriculture and sustainable development'. Which is topical and socially relevant - but the author is given as P.O. Tato.'