University
Klaas van Berkel Photo by © Kees van de Veen

Van Berkel on the UG after 1945

‘Bachelor education is barely academic at best’

Klaas van Berkel Photo by © Kees van de Veen
After more than ten years of research, university historian Klaas van Berkel finished his project on the history of the UG. All the way up to the Yantai controversy. ‘In a regular company, a failure of this magnitude would’ve resulted in the board president resigning immediately.’
14 March om 13:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 15 March 2022
om 9:30 uur.
March 14 at 13:32 PM.
Last modified on March 15, 2022
at 9:30 AM.
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Door Christien Boomsma

14 March om 13:32 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 15 March 2022
om 9:30 uur.
Avatar photo

By Christien Boomsma

March 14 at 13:32 PM.
Last modified on March 15, 2022
at 9:30 AM.
Avatar photo

Christien Boomsma

Achtergrondcoördinator en wetenschapsredacteur Volledig bio » Background coordinator and science editor Full bio »

There was no answer from Kuala Lumpur.

Klaas van Berkel had sent an email to former board president Sibrand Poppema, who lives there these days. Van Berkel’s three-part series on the history of the UG was set to end with Poppema’s tenure as president. It would include the UG’s biggest adventure yet: the attempt to open a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai. 

It was only natural that Van Berkel had some questions for the project’s originator. But the Yantai project had resulted in a disaster. At least, for Poppema. 

‘Perhaps he didn’t want anything to do with it anymore’, says Van Berkel. ‘Or perhaps he’s afraid he might get sucked into something.’ Whatever his reasons, Poppema didn’t feel the need to talk to Van Berkel about his vision on Yantai and the management culture after the Second World War.

Fortunately, members of the university council were willing to provide an explanation. And there were plenty of interviews and other paper sources the university historian could use to piece together the vision of the then board members. 

Voted down

The picture his research painted was crystal clear: Yantai, says Van Berkel, was supposed to be the culmination of the ‘commercial university’ that the UG had become after the war, and Poppema was its biggest advocate. 

The branch campus was intended to skyrocket the UG to the top of the international rankings. It was supposed to maintain student numbers and afford the university access to research partnerships. 

Poppema did everything he could to force the plans through

But in January of 2018, Poppema’s dream was definitively voted down by the university council. Over the course of the previous years, the academic community had become increasingly frustrated with the way the board of directors was treating them. For years, the board was preoccupied with growth, performance, and student numbers. ‘The council didn’t appreciate that the board seemed to place more importance on the business side of things than on values such as academic freedom and accountability.’

When the Yantai plans were launched, some people had doubts. How would academic freedom work in a totalitarian country? What would Groningen even gain from a campus in China?

But all these concerns were systematically brushed aside, and critics were dismissed or ridiculed. ‘Poppema did everything he could to force the plans through’, says Van Berkel. ‘That led to a lot of bad blood.’

Errand boys

One example is the 2017 letter signed by the entirety of the UG’s deans, begging the council members to approve the plans. Even dean Herman de Jong, head of the economics faculty, which didn’t even want to participate in the plans. ‘The council asked Poppema if he’d asked the deans to sign the letter. He denies it’, says Van Berkel. ‘But that’s even worse. People were acting on what the board wanted before the board itself could even ask for it. People like Mladen Popovic at theology and Marian Joëls with medical sciences also signed the letter. These people allowed themselves to be errand boys for the board of directors.’

People grew more irritated by the week. Then, in January 2018, the council definitively voted no on this ‘extreme consequence of the market-oriented policies that has become common at Dutch universities’. Van Berkel: ‘The council’s decision marked the end of expansionism.’

Years of preparations, investments in the millions, and countless ceremonious partnership agreements had been for nothing. ‘In a normal company, a disaster of this magnitude would have resulted in the board president resigning immediately’, says Van Berkel. 

But not for Poppema. He served the rest of his term and kept schtum. He still does.

New programmes

It’s tempting to categorise the Chinese adventure and the character of Poppema as a phenomenon of the neoliberal years of the new millennium. But that is patently untrue, Van Berkel argues in his new, more than 700-page book. 

What’s more, Van Berkel observes a development that started right after war, when the economic faculty was founded. In the fifties, this development became unavoidable due to the growing number of students. The number of positions available for academic staff also skyrocketed. 

The democratisation of the university was an intermezzo

‘They weren’t just positions that hadn’t been filled yet. There were also requests to create whole new programmes. The arts faculty especially asked for this, even though they already had so many professors on board’, says Van Berkel. ‘But the number of students these programmes would attract wouldn’t be nearly enough to pay for all of it.’

That’s when the then secretary of the board of governors, Jacobus Cluysenaer, proposed doing things differently. Any developments, Cluysenaer said, that weren’t ‘commercially sound’ should be prevented. ‘That was the first time that the term “commercial” was used as a core concept in policy’, says Van Berkel.

Business

What followed was a time in which classical values such as academic freedom, education, and curiosity slowly but surely started losing ground, being replaced by an institute that was being run like a business, with increasingly less room for programmes that didn’t bring in big student numbers, where education became ‘lecturer-independent’, and academics had become competitive.

While this changed briefly during the sixties and seventies when the university was briefly gripped by the democratisation movement, ‘but that was an intermezzo’, argues Van Berkel. ‘A ripple in the history of the commercial university.’ 

He realised this deviates from the classical view that this period was the start, or perhaps the end, of an era. There’s a reason the ‘histories’ of other Dutch universities end here. ‘Many people like to see their own time as a student as a crossroads in history’, he says. 

But he saw how the commercialisation trend returned in the eighties, when the government kept cutting universities’ budgets. It was board president Erik Bleumink who finally decided to make a change. ‘He said that the university had to change course, or they wouldn’t survive. The market was the leading model at the time.’

Van Berkel remembers how angry he was at Bleumink back then. But the board president was right. ‘He realised in time that staying the course would’ve led to disaster.’

Practical programmes

The university set up programmes that didn’t really have a place in academics, but that did draw in students, such as communication and journalism. ‘The arts faculty managed to keep its head above water with all these practical programmes that could’ve also been taught at a university of applied sciences.’

Educational experts were hired who focused on ‘studyability’ and ‘lecturer-independent education’. It was a painful development. ‘They reduced academic education to the level of instructions’, says Van Berkel, who sees it as a ‘meeting’ between lecturers and students. It’s about what happens after the instructions have been given. ‘But that takes time and space. It’s a wasteful, inefficient system which means it doesn’t stand a chance in an environment that considers commercialisation a good thing.’

Academic education is a wasteful, inefficient system.

The consequences are abundantly clear today. ‘Bachelor education is barely academic at best’, says Van Berkel straightforwardly. ‘What students produce after four years these days would hardly have qualified as a bachelor thesis back then.’

What about the academic community? Van Berkel wonders if it even still exists. ‘The thing that actually makes a university, that legitimises its existence, seems to have been reduced to the fringes.’

Bright spot

Nevertheless, Van Berkel isn’t displeased with the university as it is now. Sure, its academic characteristics are being eroded, but he also sees bright spots. Those practical programmes mentioned above are going through what’s known as academic drift: they’re becoming more theoretical and more in-depth. ‘People don’t want to feel inferior to their colleagues at other universities, including international ones. Water may always find the lowest level, but academics are always looking to rise to the highest one.’ 

There’s something else that’s even more important, he says. No matter how much pressure the university is under, ‘no one is denying or trivialising the values that form the foundation of an academic community, or saying they are irrelevant’. 

That’s something that can’t be killed easily, and that’s what makes the university so resilient. ‘There is an apparent strength in lecturers and students living and working together that politicians and managers have never been able to break.’

Van Berkel says the university and its accompanying academic freedom embody the highest form of culture. The university has room for people who can disagree on all sorts of things: politics, religion, etc. ‘But they found a way to work together on a joint project and make the world a slightly better place. Politicians can’t do that, but scientists at a university, the home of science, have been able to make it work.’

As he writes in his book: ‘If universities didn’t exist, we would have to immediately invent them.’

Klaas van Berkel, Universiteit van het Noorden: vier eeuwen academisch leven in Groningen. Part 3: De zakelijke universiteit 1945-2021, 768 pages, Uitgeverij Verloren, 49 euros.

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