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Vice-Rector Hester Bijl: 'More personalised learning'

She has held office for over a hundred days, and is enthusiastic about what she has seen of the University thus far. Bursting with energy, she has plans aplenty for the teaching. An interview with ‘new’ Vice-Rector Magnificus of Leiden University, Hester Bijl.

Hester Bijl has just arrived from a meeting outside the University, and as soon as ours ends she rushes off to the next one. She says she has made sure that a ‘fantastic’ introduction programme has been arranged for her. This has her visiting all 29 research institutes and attending classes. ‘I want to get a feel for what’s happening on the shop floor: what’s going on and what motivates people.’ She watched a bypass operation at the LUMC, for instance: ‘So impressive.’ And in the meantime, her regular work needs doing too – as Vice-Rector on the Executive Board she is responsible for the teaching portfolio.

‘Leiden is a great university with a wide range of programmes and research. I see a lot of enthusiasm, in students and staff alike. What strikes me is that students here have a full say in what goes on, for instance as assessor on the faculty boards or 0n the Leiden University Student Platform (LUS) of course. And then there’s the Plaatselijke Kamer van Verenigingen [an umbrella organisation of student societies in Leiden]. Students also have firm opinions and place their own issues on the agenda, such as sustainability and inclusivity. This is something that I like to see.’

‘I think the Bio Science Park is wonderful, enormously innovative and impressive. What also strikes me is that the organisational side of things runs very smoothly here. There are plenty of fantastic, innovative things going on, such as SPOCs, small private online courses, and blended learning, a mixture of online and offline learning. You’re struck by everyone’s enthusiasm, at the Leiden University Teachers Academy for instance. And, oh yes, the city is so pretty and welcoming. That’s also true for The Hague, where lots of great things are happening right now.’

Three goals

Hester Bijl has set herself three goals for the time being: (1) to set to work on the new teaching vision; (2) to better coordinate and further consolidate the degree programmes at the University; and (3) to future-proof the logistical processes supporting teaching at the University and to improve the learning management system.


She doesn’t want to give away too much about the new teaching vision. ‘We’ve formulated eight ambitions that make it clear which direction we want the teaching to take in the coming years. A University think-tank provided input. Our first step will be to inform the students and staff about the teaching vision. I want to discuss it with them so that I can find out if they identify with the ambitions and know what we are already doing. I also want to find out where they see opportunities and where they see obstacles. I will be visiting the faculties this spring, and after the summer I want to set up small groups with people from all the different faculties. A teaching vision is more than just a piece of paper: it has to be turned into concrete plans that correspond with the current teaching and have the support of the lecturers. I want to use this input, as well as that of the faculty boards, the Official Teaching Consultation (AOWB) and the Teaching Consultation (OWB) to formulate a smart plan that will help us future-proof our teaching.’

Individual learning pathways

One of the ambitions that she is keen to discuss is making the whole curriculum more accessible and flexible. She wants to set to work on this as soon as possible. This will make it easier for students to choose their own learning pathways than is currently the case. ‘A mathematics student recently told me that she couldn’t take Psychology as a minor. It was something to do with logistics, with scheduling and the timetable, which is a great pity. I can’t wait to tackle this. We have a wonderful range of minors and bachelor’s, master’s and pre-master’s programmes, but these pathways must become less separate than they are now. There should be fewer fences around them. Learning has to be more customised. It must be easier for students to put together parts of their programmes without coming up against logistical obstacles. And we must become better at linking programmes, for instance linking the broad bachelor’s programmes that we have now, which are very attractive to international students, to our own master’s programmes, perhaps by making smarter use of minors and by making good use of the possibilities of online learning to identify and address any shortcomings. We won’t need to launch many new programmes but instead to consolidate the ones we have and improve the links between them.’

Learning and teaching day and communication

Bijl emphasises that although she finds innovation important, it should not become an aim in itself. ‘So much is already going on at the University. Let’s connect those plans and above all implement them. You can set up fantastic pilot schemes, but then you have to actually do something with the resultant successes. I’m considering how to do just that. Communication is also very important, of course. I’d like to hold a big learning and teaching day or fair, for instance, so that our best practices can serve as an example to others. The main thing is that you learn from and inspire each other. From experiment to embedding therefore.’

Logistical bottlenecks

Bijl sees her third task as addressing and removing ‘logistical bottlenecks’ in teaching. ‘I won’t interfere with the nuts and bolts of the different forms of teaching and programmes, but I do think that the student should be central rather than the lecturer or the process. I therefore want to harmonise the processes and systems, future-proof them. This could mean processes such as grade registration and degree conferral or systems in the modular electronic learning environment such as Blackboard and uSis and, in future, learning analytics. We’ll need to have sorted out the basis if we want to move with the times and provide decent support for students. Now is the time to do this, because we need to replace the Blackboard learning management system.’ It won’t be an easy job, but she knows that someone has to do it. ‘We’re doing it whether people like it or not. I’m not here to win popularity prizes, but to move the University on.’


Bijl also finds the issue of ‘diversity’ important, although she prefers to talk about inclusivity. ‘There’s not that much you can do about diversity. You can work on “being inclusive” though. Together we can ensure that we are a university with opportunities for all, a university that allows people to get the best out of themselves, no matter who they are and what their background. We want a student population that reflects society, in terms of gender, origin, culture and religion, and this could also mean refugees.’

The meeting has ended, at precisely the arranged time – Bijl needs to rush off. We’ll be hearing a lot from Hester Bijl. ‘I can’t wait to get started. I like being transparent, and I like to say what I think of things in an open and fairly direct manner. Yes, that’s more Delft style than Leiden,’ she laughs. ‘But I’m sure people will get used to it.’

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