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Rutte in Leiden: ‘Only studying is such a waste of opportunity’

From political confessions to life lessons from his own student time. On 14 March, Prime Minister Mark Rutte gave candid answers to questions from Leiden law students.

The Law Faculty's Grotius association had invited the Prime Minister for a Leiden variant of the College Tour. With the elections coming up, Rutte was happy to accept. Rutte responded smoothly and with a sprinkling of humorous quips to questions about politics, his student days and who he would take with him to an uninhabited island ('Yesse Klaver to ask why he withdrew from the negotiations'). The really sensitive questions, such as the difficult departure of party member Halbe Zijlstra, were not raised, but Rutte was very open about his role as Prime Minister and leader of the VVD. 'I support around 90 per cent of the VVD's principles, but there's about 10 per cent where I differ. You can't always agree with one another about everything. I recently realised that I had argued against electoral thresholds and our election programme says that we are in favour. Oops.'

Rutte in the Lorentz Hall with Leiden aldermen and Mayor Henri Lenferink in the front row.

Influence from student time

‘Has your student time influenced how you are as Prime Minister?' Jelle Keijser asked. 'It definitely has,' Rutte replied. 'Your student time is a formative period in your life because it's when you learn a lot about yourself. You find out what you like and how you interact with other people. Hopefully, you learn to put yourself and your experiences realistically into perspective, because you'll almost certainly have some setbacks, even though they may not be too serious.' The many students present couldn't help but laugh when Rutte bit the bullet and told them he had taken eight years to complete his degree in History. That was partly because of his intensive chairmanship of JOVD, the VVD's youth organisation, he explained.  

Professor of Penal Law and Sentencing Pauline Schuyt led the discussion.

Ban utilitarian thinking

The prime minister stressed the importance of being active outside your study programme. 'Of course, that's easier said than done  because these days you have to make sure you complete your studies in four or five years and you're also accumulating debt. But, please, ban utilitarian thinking and make sure you try out different things. Don't spend all your time studying; that's such a waste of opportunities!  It's not important whether you play an active role in politics or at a drama club or a student association,but that you do something.' He referred to his earlier job as personnel manager for Unilever.' As a recruiter, you look at the complete person and you're always interested to find out whether a candidate has played a prominent role somewhere outside the study environment.' 

Initiation rituals

And what does the prime minister think of study associations, given the commotion surrounding initiation rituals? Rutte, who was not a member of a student association, commented, 'I think the corrective effect from society is a good thing. Traditions are great, but they must never be at the cost of human dignity.' 

Better to know a lot about a small subject

Of course, Rutte was also asked about his History studies. 'For me, the most fascinating thing about History is looking at those periods when things were just managing to remain good, before going off the rails. That's where to look for why do things go wrong.' During his studies he focused on the period of the Republic, just before the invasion by the French at the end of the 18th century. Rutte's advice to students was, 'When you're studying, it's better to know a lot about a small subject than a little about everything. Otherwise it all becomes very superficial.' 

Ugly buildings

Maaike van Vliet wanted to know what Rutte would have fought for if he had been active in Leiden politics as a student. The answer was accommodation, motivated by the shortage of accommodation for students, but also because of the university buildings. 'When I was studying, Leiden was in a worse position than now. The university was accommodated in a number of ugly buildings on the edge of the centre; the Executive Board, for instance, was located close to the station. I studied in the city centre in what was then known as the  WSD complex; today it's the Lipsius Building. It's a bit of a bare, modern building, but it was a relaxed and fun place to be. So much has now been improved; just take the Law Faculty in this beautiful Kamerlingh Onnes Building. Stylish architectureis so important!' 


Gabriella Beernink asked Rutte about his biggest setback as  prime minister. His answer was immediate: 'The MH17 disaster.The number of fatalities and the complexity of the situation, that was and is the most far-reaching and the most emotional thing I've had to deal with.' The crisis went on for much longer than expected and Rutte admitted that errors of judgement had been made.  'During the previous elections I had promised things that I was unable to deliver because of the crisis.' At the end of the session, Rutte referred to the coming local elections and he urged the students, 'Go and vote!' 

(LvP/photos Monique Shaw)

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