‘Academic education is central to the ideal university'


Every student spends the second half of the second year exclusively on courses in liberal education. Taught in Dutch only, taken care of by the Humanities department. This statement is made by Professor Emeritus Floris Cohen whose book De ideale universiteit (The Ideal University) will be published on Tuesday 11 February. For DUB he gives a little glimpse of the book in this article.

Read in Dutch

Suppose you are worried about the state of our universities here in the Netherlands. Suppose you get the chance to institute a novel arrangement just as you think would be best. How would you proceed?

Those worries are wide-spread. I feel them likewise, and that is what has made me decide to undertake a thought experiment. Acting as if the present-day university simply doesn’t exist, I have placed myself on a playfield thus cleared, and designed a new university. Not, to be sure, a fully new one. There are certainly features worth preserving. Nonetheless, a for the largest part novel university. One where, so I hope and expect, many a person, from student to professor and from department council member to minister, would feel better at home than in its current manifestation. I have not designed a blueprint — my sketch is not nearly so detailed, let alone nailed shut. But I have not built a castle in the air either —the design is too practice-oriented for that. The thing is, it is about time to move on from a decades-long, veritable flood of criticism to a positive discussion. A discussion about the question ‘if not this, then how?’. The present and also our previous vice-principal (‘rector magnificus’) have recently, from an administrators’ perspective, come forward with some interesting assists. My booklet De ideale universiteit (the Dutch title means exactly what you already think it means) that appears today with the Amsterdam ‘Prometheus’ publishing house now offers a comprehensive and also coherent package of, mostly, quite radical reforms.


Primacy of teaching
In my ideal university an end is first of all put to two very important things. The Dutch universities are no longer each others’ rivals, due to my removing the ‘perverse incentives’ from the state’s current funding system. And I abolish, or at least drastically curtail, numerous institutions that have had their undoubted uses in the past but that have meanwhile turned mostly into stand-in-the-ways (NWO is one of them, DUO another). This creates needed space for many positive things. Here are a few. Primacy of teaching over any other concern. Broadly designed liberal-education courses for every second-year student. Close going-together of university and HBO (institutions of higher professional education), in particular at the level of the ‘vakgroep’ (the bottom unit, bringing together teachers active in the same scholarly domain). Bottom-up policy preparation and (where at all feasible) execution. Numerically restricted, service-oriented administration and management. Professional autonomy, with orderly accountability as indispensable counterpart. Quality assessment at the highest attainable level of expertise. I shall now briefly clarify some selected aspects.

Academic education
Universities exist in the first place for making the upcoming generation share in the knowledge that previous generations have acquired. In my ideal university that knowledge is passed on, without exception, by teachers who themselves engage in original research. It is the very education / research combination, that is, education fertilized by one’s own research , that renders university teaching its unique quality. For eight months per year every student is entitled to the undivided attention of every teacher; for the rest of the year every teacher carries out her own research. Her investigations are driven by her own urgent wish to explore to the bottom this or that issue that has caught her scholarly interest, in consultation with the ‘vakgroep’ and in wholesale independence from anyone or anything. The curriculum, too, is discussed at the level of the ‘vakgroep’, and then decided in full independence.

Every student spends the second half of the second year exclusively on courses in liberal education. Taught in Dutch only, these courses fall in two main categories. In the first category the student learns how properly to deal with texts at the level of a fully-grown academic. How do you read a text at sufficient depth really to penetrate what it has to say, and to acquire a grasp of it that endures for longer than just one examination week? How to absorb in the best manner what you have just read? How to think about what you have absorbed with increasing independence of mind, and how to come up with sensible criticism? How to begin turning your burgeoning thoughts about what you have read into arguments? And how to write up those arguments?

Thesis defense as culmination point
The student further learns to think in increasingly systematic fashion about what science and scholarship and the actual practice thereof are about. What, in rough outline, are science and scholarship like? How do its practitioners operate, and why? What does academic integrity stand for, and what not? How do science and scholarship work out in society at large, and what tools do we have at our disposal to face their real-world effects with sufficient critical sense?

The entire liberal education program is taken care of by the humanities department, which finds there its main task and, to a large extent, the ground of its existence. And it is this liberal education that constitutes the beating heart of what turns universities into veritable universities and into inspiring power stations for society- wide debate on the basis of facts and of object- rather than subject-oriented arguments.

Another topic. Thesis defense forms the culmination point of a full-grown study period. It closes off a three years’ trajectory during which the master thesis is being expanded into a doctoral dissertation. Next, the young doctor enters the labor market. This might, but need not, be the academic labor market, be it at once, or later, or not at all. There are no longer any post-doc positions. A fully independent Appeals Council at the highest level of the university protects its graduate students effectively against possible supervisors’ attempts to set them to work on their own odd jobs.

A value-laden community
Regular quality (not quantity) assessment is carried out by the most expert outside colleagues. As much as possible they make use to that end of documents that are already there, such as the referee reports for those three publications that the assessed teacher herself has sent in as her best. A teacher’s or an entire vakgroep’s research is being judged by colleagues in their own research domain; their curriculum by recently graduated students. It is further impossible for any teacher to be employed on a temporary basis for longer than a fixed (say ten) number of years — at that point at the latest it is going to be either permanent employment or the end of one’s academic career.

In my ideal university teachers, but also graduate students, are no longer the rival of every other. Such a university rather forms a value-laden community, whose members jointly put themselves at the service of a shared, high idea of what science and scholarship are about. In such a community an atmosphere of mutual trust, not of bureaucratic forms exuding distrust sets the tone. It is that trust that, on a par with liberal education, is at the heart of what my design is all about.

Perspective on a viable future
How, so I already hear the reader ask, how has it occurred to me to finance all this? That question, too, has received a chapter in my book, just as staffing policies, the tasks of what I call Truly Supportive Personnel, and the composition, institution and tasks of the administration at the level of the vakgroep, the department, and the university as a whole. Issues like interdisciplinary research and the effects of teaching and research come up for discussion likewise.

In conclusion. Does your ideal university look different, be it partly or wholly, from mine? Great! For my reform package is not really the only one conceivable. If my design offers a workable alternative, and that is what I hope to have shown in De ideale universiteit, then the same objectives can also, with basically the same means, be realized in a variety of other ways. The main thing is to know now that we are here in the realm of the actually possible. We need not confine ourselves to criticism; there is now a reasonably thought-through perspective on a viable future. It is up to you, enterprising youngsters in the first place, to set yourselves to the task!

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