Science - March 11, 2004

‘University is drinking poison to quench its thirst’

According to Dr Chun Ming Liu, researcher at Plant Research International, too much importance is placed on money as a driving factor in the internationalisation process at Wageningen University. In the short term this may help the university to survive, but in the long term it is a self-destructive strategy.

Liu was speaking at a workshop on ‘selection and practical issues’ during the conference on internationalisation of education at Wageningen UR organised by OtherWise. In his presentation, Liu distinguished three factors that stimulate internationalisation. First is what he called ‘mastermind’. This is what drives American top universities to attract talent from all over the world. ‘These universities have tough selection, but offer equal opportunities for both rich and poor students by offering a certain number of fellowships,’ Liu said. Another reason to get students from abroad to your university is ‘merit’. Liu was referring especially to the British use of higher education to sell their cultural values, where selection is also based on ensuring that all sections of the population are represented and given a chance. This selection is based on humanitarian principles and the universities offer good fellowships. The third type of internationalisation Liu distinguishes is money-based, mostly practised by what Liu calls the ‘third-class universities’. These universities attract foreign students because they need their money to survive. The selection is based on the size of the purse of the students. It is easy to gain entrance, there are no fellowships, but the university wants to help students to get their degree as quick as possible. Liu calls this strategy `drinking poison to quench thirst’.

Entrance criteria
Unfortunately, Liu continued, Wageningen UR’s international strategy is more money oriented than mastermind or merit oriented. Wageningen needed international students to survive, Liu says, because Dutch student numbers were declining rapidly. He continued that Wageningen UR does not seem to be looking for the best students, and commented that the entrance criteria for the China Agricultural University are higher then those of Wageningen UR. However, Liu recognises that the money-oriented approach has its advantages. It helps the university to survive, and it makes for a relaxed time for students because the education is easy. Liu thinks however that the university is taking an enormous risk because it will lead to compromised education, a loss of quality and ultimately declining student numbers. Furthermore, this strategy excludes poor but talented students. `A lot went wrong last year,’ said Liu, referring to the costs of residence permits, which rose from 50 to 430 euros, big delays at the Dutch immigration service (IND), a decline in tolerance and sympathy for international students, almost no support for international students and a lack of career opportunities in the Netherlands.

Liu proposed a model in which the three M’s, merit, mastermind and money are balanced. Only then, according to Liu, can Wageningen become an internationally recognised centre for international agriculture. Excellent graduates will form a benefit to Wageningen University and the Netherlands. But to achieve this, measures have to be taken. Liu thinks that about eighty percent of the students should be self-paying. Their tuition fees can partly be used to cover the costs for another twenty percent to whom scholarships should be provided. Furthermore Liu thinks the selection at entry level can be improved, although this is difficult in practical terms. Liu wants higher quality of education and a switch to a totally English-speaking environment. However, the most important thing, according to Liu, is that selection should continue during the study. The university should dare to prevent non-qualified students from finishing their studies. To do this though, the support to students has to be better as well. Liu concluded that it’s important to further break the ice between Dutch and foreign students.

Dr Stella Efdé, head of the student service, did not agree. She said that foreign students are not recruited only for the sake of earning money. ‘Student numbers were a bit lower, but that is a natural trend. Numbers go up and down. We are internationalising because that’s a European trend set in Bologna.’ However, other students attending the workshop did agree with Liu that there should be selection during the studies. ‘You cannot be a top university and have a diploma guarantee,’ said a student. Dr Theo Lexmond, study coordinator for environmental sciences even promised that Chinese BSc students whose performance is still weak at the end of the academic year would be sent back.

Guido van Hofwegen