Universiteit Leiden

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What drives universities?

Studium Generale is organising a series of discussions about what universities are and what they ought to be. The first debate was on 4 April in the Academy Building. 'The numbers fetish has even penetrated the humanities.'

What is wrong?

Students have occupied the Maagdenhuis at the University of  Amsterdam, professers have protested on the Malieveld in The Hague, the study financing system has been abolished and NWO has presented its controversial Vision for Science.  The debate on science and higher education has been anything but boring in recent years. But many of those involved are not happy, according to Studium Generale: universities have become too focused on performance and they have too many rules and checks. The three speakers shared this view, but they had different ideas about the causes. 

What is the cause?

The sciences, according to Willem Otterspeer, Professor of University History, Leiden University.
The influences of science are unfamiliar in the humanities, Otterspeer commented. He made a point of saying that he has nothing against the sciences; he is even full of wonder for them. They have been enormously successful, both in terms of results and valorisation. But, he believes that universities have applied the working methods of scientists throughout the whole of the organisation. 'The numbers fetish has even penetrated the humanities.' And this change of culture also affects the questions humanities academics pose. He is not happy with this development.  'You can't weigh the value of imponderabilia.’   

New public management, according to Sandra Groeneveld, Professor of  Public Management, Institute of Public Administration, Leiden University.
Just like other public institutions, since the '90s universities have not been able to avoid new public management. This new way of managing the public sector primarily means  that more attention is paid to market forces and public institutions are kept at a greater distance from the government. Universities, too, are having to cope with management terms like efficiency, performance, accountability and economies. But Groeneveld suspects theirzeal has carried them a bit too far with their zeal. Universities seem to be implementing the performance agreements that they make with the government within their own organisations, too. Every part of the organisation is having to cope with rules and checks whether the rules are being complied with. And that's a pity,  according to Groeneveld, because universities have a lot of freedom in how they structure their organisation. 

The system is structurally ambivalent, according to Eik Bähre, university lecturer, Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Leiden University.
The neoliberalism that was the origin of new public management, does not really lend itself to analysing the problems of universities, according to Bähre. A university doesn't have the same characteristics as a market, as definied by neoliberalism. Students receive money to study; they have a right to education because of their citizenship, and ultimately: knowledge is not a product. ‘You can't pick it off the shelf; you have to acquire it and process it yourself.' 

Bähre believes it is more appropriate for universities to think in terms of distribution: there is money in a pot and the government shares it out. It's an ambivalent system, he commented. Goods can be distributed in a way that everyone is treated the same, or via personal networks. In Bähre's view, both have their pros and cons: these characteristics explain a lot of the current tensions with universities.

What kind of university do we want?

A broad  intellectual middle class, said Willem Otterspeer.
Take a year out of secondary school and add it to the bachelor's.  That's what Otterspeer would like to see. The kind of classical education that he himself enjoyed in the 70s has gone efor good, he realises. But it means that a broadly trained intellectual middle class is disappearing, even though society needs them.The university could set up a broad bachelor's prorgamme with that extra year, focusing on languages, art and culture.   

Confidence in scientists, said Sandra Groeneveld
‘Go mad and just imagine that scientists are passionate about their own field.' Confidence in the intrinsic motives of scientists, that's what universities should try, according to Groeneveld. This kind of motivation is now often swept away with rational arguments, she believes, and with rules and checks that they are being observed.  'But measurable aims are not always possible at a university, for example where ambiguity is the aim.' It's possible to set goals, she believes, 'But use the brains in your institution and decentralise.'  

Change the definition of success, said Erik Bähre
The government is setting up a new distribution system for science, according to Bähre, with the National Science Agenda and its different paths. How should scientists approach this?  Bähre doesn't believe you can use a neoliberal filter to look at science areas: research and higher education are not a market. He gives an unexpected example: monks in Myanmar who refused to accept gifts from the military. Strange? Bähre believes it depends on what you value. The boycott meant existential and religious uncertainty for the Myanmarese. Similarly, the department with the highest number of publications doesn't have to come top in every ranking. ‘You can change the defininition of success.' 

Monthly lecture series

Studium Generale is intending to organise a meeting every month for all those who want to discuss these issues under the flag of  What drives the university? The sessions will discuss such  questions as:  What is the relationship between the university and society? What is good teaching and research? What can a university do - and what can't it do? 

The next meeting is planned for 23 May, from 19.30 to 21.00 hrs in the Academy Building. The pogramme for the evening isn't yet firm; the organisers welcome your suggestions. 

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