From green collection box to blue envelope

By Roel Wouters

A few months ago, the VU announced that it would no longer be offering a study of Dutch. The number of first-year students had dropped down to a handful of students. The VU will most likely not have been surprised that this led to social and political fuss. After all, the closure of programmes often causes commotion. The (supposed) symbolic significance of the disappearance of one of the Dutch study programmes from the Dutch university landscape did not go unnoticed.

What did go largely unnoticed, however, was the irony about the fact that it was precisely the Free University that became the centre of political commotion about university policy. Minister Van Engelshoven was called upon to intervene at the university that was once founded by Abraham Kuyper in order to be independent of the government. A salient detail is that this appeal came from another Kuyperian heir, the CDA. It is clear that the Vrije Universiteit is no longer financed by green collection boxes, but by blue envelopes.

In answering the parliamentary questions, the Minister acted as the guardian of university independence and explained that, in general, she does not feel very strongly about preventing programmes from having to close down. However, the minister's reaction could not prevent a storm of criticism from erupting as a result of the contested decision.

This commotion shows how fragile the balance between the government and the university is. The government finances the free choices of student and university, but as soon as these choices are too much out of step with society's needs, there is a commotion. Apparently, society has the implicit expectation that the subsidised freedom will eventually result in a sufficient increase in the number of socially essential professional officials. But this implicit expectation does not necessarily correspond to the image that is often cherished at the university.

Programmes like to emphasize that they train to be a researcher or a generally educated academic and not a profession. University programmes that have a fairly strong professional profile in addition to a research profile are often regarded with contempt. The reality, both now and in the past, is that the university does not train either as a researcher or as a profession. It provides a diversity of academics through education that is largely focused on scientific training. This is expressed nicely in the mission of Harvard University: "to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society. We do this through our commitment to the transformative power of a liberal arts and sciences education". In the Netherlands, it often seems to be formulated in reverse: we train researchers who, in spite of this, in many places outside the scope of research are given a broader social function. I am not arguing here that curricula should become more professionally oriented, on the contrary. But the university community would do well to adjust its tone a little and to embrace its function with regard to providing for various 'professions'.

The university's social mission does not, of course, arise solely from funding in the form of blue envelopes. Attracting so many young talents from society in itself requires social responsibility. It is a great benefit that society also gives the university the confidence to have so much public money at its disposal in (relative) freedom. The question is how untouchable this academic freedom turns out to be when, for example, there will no longer be a (first-degree) teacher in front of the classroom. From this point of view, the VU's green collection boxes are not nostalgia but a warning: subsidised independence is not self-evident.

Roel Wouters is a general practitioner and postdoctoral researcher.

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