Opening of the Academic Year: ‘We need more daring and a clearer identity’
‘The university has been taken for granted for too long. Leiden now has to put even more effort into strengthening its identity as an academic haven.’ These were the words of Henri Lenferink, Leiden’s Mayor, during the opening of the Academic Year on 2 September. Prince Constantijn advised students to ‘Dare to be bold and take risks.’
Addressing a full Pieterskerk, Henri Lenferink expressed the opinion that Leiden belongs among the most renowned university cities, such as Oxford, Cambridge and Leuven. These are all medium-sized cities with excellent universities, where the whole city exudes an air of scholarly culture. ‘It’s an atmosphere that students from home and abroad find highly attractive. We should continue to develop this characteristic, not just by preserving what we already have, but also by promoting renewal and innovation.’ In his speech, Lenferink analysed the bond between the city and the university throughout the centuries. It was only in the sixties and seventies of the previous century, when almost all Leiden’s factories closed, that the importance of the university for the economy of the city became clear.
But the municipality was not able to exercise a great deal of influence over the university, or so the city officials thought at the time. Very slowly the tide began to turn. In 1995, for the first time, the municipality clearly designated Leiden as a ‘knowledge city’, but even then very little altered. Fortunately, the university itself was able to advise the city on how to bring about a change in strategy. In 2003 the municipality asked Peter Toonen, Leiden expert in business administration, to come up with a plan that would make Leiden into an excellent university city. The new strategy would be based on intensive co-operation between government, education and research, combined with an entrepreneurial approach. The strategy was a great success: the Bio Science Park has since developed into one of the largest of its kind in Europe. And according to a report produced in 2012 by market research bureau Biggar Economics, the university, the Bio Science Park and the LUMC together provide some 38,000 jobs in the region.
It was another Leiden professor, Ton van Raan, who in 2005 devised the slogan ‘Leiden City of Discoveries’. Since that time, the municipality has been working on an ambitious vision for how the city and the knowledge institutions can derive maximum benefit from one another’s strengths. Lenferink commented, ‘This is a good first step, but I have to conclude that it is a topic that still rarely features in the political debate. To make the programme truly successful will take sustained attention, persistence and, of course, money. However, scarcely any funding has been reserved for this purpose.’ Lenferink hopes that this will soon be remedied when the next municipal council is formed. ‘The university can no longer be taken for granted. We have to stand up and show that we deserve this university.’
In his speech, Prince Constantijn, himself an alumnus of Leiden University, also called for daring and entrepreneurship. He is currently Head of Cabinet of European Commissioner Neelie Kroes. He recalled some advice that he received when he was a law student: ‘This is the time when you still have the luxury of being allowed to make mistakes. It is therefore your duty to take risks.’ The Prince thinks students have to show courage and step outside their comfort zone. ‘Look over the fence, beyond your own discipline. Your student years are the time to develop your talents, both within and outside your study programme. This is what former law student Armin van Buuren did, and he is now a DJ with a worldwide reputation.’
The Prince referred to the major challenges facing Leiden University: reduced funding, strongly increasing competition from international universities and leading academic institutions that, thanks to internet, are transforming themselves into virtual teaching environments. ‘But the number of universities that achieve this status and that are able to continue to offer a broad range of subjects at a high level are few and far between. Most will have to specialise or merge in order to avoid going out of business.’ He believes that Leiden is actively responding to these new trends by being the first Dutch university to offer MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). And Campus The Hague gives the university a firm footing in the international legal and administrative world. The co-operation with the Bio Science Park and the universities of Rotterdam and Delft are also steps in the right direction.
‘But is this enough in an era of super-fast change?’ the Leiden alumnus wondered. ‘The university has to make choices and dare to take risks.’ In his conclusion, he once again addressed the students. He spoke of his concern that Dutch students spend less time studying abroad than their European counterparts. ‘The EU can only continue to exist if each subsequent generation redefines it by further eliminating national borders.’ And, even more importantly, an entrepreneurial university needs enterprising students who do not view courses as an aim in themselves, but as building blocks for a future in the Netherlands or elsewhere in the world. ‘Your success is key to the success of the university. You may be more important than you realise! After today you will know that not only your own future, but also that of your university and of Europe itself, lies in your hands. That seems to me to be a positive, challenging prospect with which to embark on your studies.’
After this speech, Leiden child and education specialist Sophie van Rijn was awarded the Gratama Science Prize for her research on the consequences of a genetic variant in the form of an extra X chromosome.
In his concluding speech Rector Carel Stolker touched on a number of important developments for the university. This summer the NVAO confirmed the positive assessment resulting from the institutional audit carried out earlier this year. Leiden is this year experimenting with a binding study advice for second-year students. Another almost equally important experiment is the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), offered by Professor of European Law Stefaan Van den Bogaert, that attracted more than 30,000 applicants from all over the world. This academic year there are 800 more first-years than in the previous year, making Leiden the fastest-growing university in the Netherlands, along with Wageningen and Rotterdam. The Rector also re-affirmed the importance of the co-operation with Delft and Rotterdam. Last but not least, he stressed Leiden University’s zero tolerance policy with regard to breaches of scientific integrity: ‘This is an issue that researchers have to dare to address openly with one another.’
(3 September 2013)