Wageningen University & Research: Trends in university education, in the Netherlands and the rest of the world

The upcoming Dies Natalis is themed around educational innovation. We took an early opportunity to interview the keynote speaker, Professor Dirk van Damme. What trends does he see in academic education, in the Netherlands but also in the rest of the world? And what does this mean for the future of the universities?

Since the first university was established in 1088, education has changed quite dramatically. Among other things thanks to digitalisation, the personalisation of study programmes, and new demands from the labour market. Not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic, which greatly accelerated some of these changes. ‘I think COVID-19 caused a landslide in the way we look at education, and the way in which it should be offered,’ says Dirk van Damme, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Curriculum Redesign (Boston, MA, US) and keynote speaker at the 2022 Dies Natalis.

What trends do you see in the field of educational innovation?
‘The traditional pattern, in which a person enrols on a university programme at 18, studies for four to five years, and then gets a job, is changing. These days, we still consider it a failure when a person doesn’t complete their education, but it doesn’t have to be. There are more alternative pathways opening up, with people for example first working for a while, and only then enrolling on a study programme.

But this isn’t something our educational system can easily accommodate. For example, it’s quite difficult to integrate adults into the educational system. In this respect, the Netherlands, as well as Belgium, are lagging behind the rest of Europe. In other countries, you see people of all ages enrolling on university programmes. A related issue is part-time study: with the current tightness of the labour market, this is a good way for companies to compensate for staff shortage. During the COVID-19 pandemic, students showed themselves to be perfectly capable of stepping in and filling the gap.

Another trend is that the labour market increasingly attaches less value to diplomas
Unfortunately, educational policy and organisation are primarily geared towards full-time study. Institutions are penalised if they fail to produce enough graduates within a set time frame, and it’s harder to find adequate funding for part-time students.

Another trend is that the labour market increasingly attaches less value to diplomas. This can be seen clearly in countries such as the United States and Australia, where companies offer their own certification programmes. Big companies, such as consultancy agencies, organise their own skill assessments and they don’t see a diploma as a guarantee that someone possesses the competencies they’re looking for, such as problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and creativity. Research also shows that vacancies these days are less likely to mention a specific diploma, asking instead for generic competencies.

Higher education is doing everything it can to meet the needs of the labour market, but things are changing so fast that universities are struggling to keep up, due to the fact that they inherently tend to be slow to change; you can’t just throw an entire curriculum overboard. What you also see is that big companies train their staff themselves, without enlisting the universities’ help. I think universities need to be more pro-active and fight back a bit harder.’

In light of these trends, how do you see the future of universities?
‘Many people have a romantic idea of what a university should be: a place where a professor works in close collaboration with a small group of students. Scaling-up has largely eroded this model. I don’t think that the university as such will disappear; it has endured heavier storms throughout history. But there are some insidious developments, such as the devaluation of diplomas, that are putting universities under pressure. Universities will have to move with the times and realise that some of their historical values are no longer self-evident.’

Did COVID-19 speed up some of these developments?
‘I think that COVID-19 caused a landslide in the way in which we look at education, and the way in which it should be offered. Face-to-face teaching will certainly come back, but it will never again account for 100% of all teaching. There will be a much stronger integration of digital and distance learning into regular education. This wouldn’t have happened without COVID-19, because universities are inherently slow to change, and are cautious when it comes innovation. This isn’t meant as a criticism; I think it’s good to consider decisions carefully. I do believe that COVID-19 has accelerated the process, and taken it further than it would have gone otherwise.’

Each country has its own approach to education. What is the Netherlands good at, and are there countries from which the Netherlands can learn?
‘Internationally, the Netherlands is at the very top. The Dutch system offers a high return on what society invests in it; this applies both to education and research. I think the only country in Europe that is doing even better is Switzerland. Not only because of the available funding, but also because of the social recognition and extensive collaboration with the corporate sector.

Countries such as the US, with open systems that are much less controlled by the government, have a far greater degree of autonomy and are able to respond more quickly to societal developments. Autonomy is a great good for universities, but it’s not everything. The problem with the US is that we often focus on their top universities, without realising that these only represent 5% of universities. There are enormous differences in quality between US universities. The Dutch system is less differentiated in terms of quality, which also means you have fewer outliers in the positive sense.

Internationally, the Netherlands is at the very top. The Dutch system offers a high return on what society invests in it
Compared to other countries, the Netherlands has relatively accessible entry fees. The idea behind this is that everyone has the opportunity to study. However, when you have to serve a large student population on a limited amount of funding, the only factor you can control is the work pressure on your staff. Another option is selection at the gate. The problem, of course, is that no selection process is 100% fool-proof, so you will always end up turning down potentially valuable people.

In other countries, education is financed with private funding, which is something I’m personally in favour of. From a macro-economic perspective, studying represents a cash flow from the poor to the rich. Study programmes are financed using tax money, and lower and middle incomes pay the most tax in relative terms. This money goes to people who on average go on to generate a higher income. This makes it legitimate to increase tuition fees. In the UK, universities have already completely switched to a loan system without government funding.

Of course, this has its disadvantages, such as a high level of debt after graduation, which may prevent people from being enterprising. Or discourage them from studying at all. The most important thing is a clear and consistent policy. As a Flemish person, looking at the Netherlands, I often wonder at the fickleness of your educational policy. And this while universities greatly benefit from a long-term policy.’

Imagine that the year is 2030: what does education look like?
‘I think the trends I’ve mentioned above will only be more pronounced. I doubt that the percentage of people who enrol on a university programme will have increased further, since there’ll be more alternatives available. I also expect students of various ages, and combinations of different forms of education: partly from home, partly on campus, more combining of work and study. The link between a diploma and a given profession will be much less self-evident. At the moment, approximately 40% of people don’t work in the sector they studied for. This percentage will only increase further. Professions and job content are changing fast. When I look at vacancies these days, I’ve no idea what half of the job titles actually involve.

One delicate theme right now is transgressive behaviour. This is a topic that can’t be ignored any longer, also not at the university. Like it or not, power dynamics, such as between professors and students, and close collaboration are characteristic of an academic environment, even when it’s functioning well. How do we deal with this so as to prevent transgressive behaviour while allowing the university to retain its original character?’

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