Illustration by Kalle Wolters

Does it pay off?

The University of the North is everywhere

Illustration by Kalle Wolters
Under the name University of the North, the UG is collaborating with businesses, governments, and other educational institutes from Emmen to Appingedam. But is it all talk, or does it actually get results?
20 March om 12:13 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 March 2024
om 11:08 uur.
March 20 at 12:13 PM.
Last modified on March 27, 2024
at 11:08 AM.
Avatar photo

Door Rob van der Wal

20 March om 12:13 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 27 March 2024
om 11:08 uur.
Avatar photo

By Rob van der Wal

March 20 at 12:13 PM.
Last modified on March 27, 2024
at 11:08 AM.

Once, the goal was for the university to be as internationally oriented as possible, with plans for a branch campus in the Chinese city of Yantai as its highlight. But under president Jouke de Vries, the UG has gone in a different direction. He wants to marry the international and local aspects of the university. 

‘Otherwise, there will be an increasing number of people in the city wondering why everyone is speaking English instead of Dutch or Gronings’, he explains. ‘If you can show the connection between the university and the region, you make people feel part of a community.’

To that end, the University of the North was created: a collaboration with universities of applied sciences, vocational training institutes and businesses that is supposed to lead to research projects, start-ups, and new jobs. But how does that benefit the university, which traditionally focuses on education and research?

Quite a lot, De Vries says. ‘As university, we play a role in the challenges that come with the application of knowledge. That means we have to show the impact our research has on the economy and how we can create jobs.’ This is also known as valorisation.

‘The application of knowledge to the market isn’t something research universities are particularly good at. Universities of applied sciences, however, are’, says De Vries. That means there’s an opportunity for collaboration. In fact, the partnership, which initially led to some scepticism, is actually bringing in more grant money. ‘The Hague and Europe sometimes even enforce partnerships in order to get more grant money.’

Engineering doctorate

There is also a need to ensure that recent graduates stay in the North, in particular because of a shortage of workers for the Dutch labour market. ‘Students have to be informed which business in the North offer internships, to ensure that they stay here. The University of the North has an important role to play there.’

Research universities aren’t particularly good at the application of knowledge

Bayu Jawardhana, co-director of engineering at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, also realised that companies Philips, Resato, and Batenburg Beenen are clamouring for engineers with at least a master’s degree.

‘We needed a programme in collaboration with businesses aimed at engineers who already found work after finishing their master, just like other technical universities have’, he says. In Drachten, they set up an engineering doctorate programme in autonomous systems, a field that many businesses in Drachten focus on. 

‘The students will work on an issue that comes from the businesses themselves, but we’re not an engineering firm that just solves the problem for the company’, says Jayawardhana. ‘We approach them from a technological and scientific direction, which means the solution is ultimately applicable to various different businesses.’ It’s supposed to be the start of a larger Drachten campus focused on autonomous systems.

Greenwise Campus

There is another project in Emmen: the Greenwise Campus. The UG, NHL Stenden University of Applied Sciences, ROC Drenthe College, governments, and businesses have come together in an old bus depot, which still smells like rubber and oil. The partnership between the UG and NHL Stenden, which focuses on sustainable plastics, was even the first ‘hybrid’ research group in the Netherlands.

Becoming the frontrunner in circular plastic could genuinely lead to more jobs

In addition to plastics, the campus focuses on energy and smart manufacturing, as well as healthcare & technology. They’re currently still in development. There are twenty people working in the building on a daily basis. The premises are about to undergo extensive renovations, which should be finished by late 2025. Then, the participants will be able to share workspace, test rigs, and start-up offices. The entire thing will cost twenty million euros.

Quite a few parties are interested, says Annette Verhoef, director for the Greenhouse Campus and manager at NHL Stenden in Emmen. ‘The building has 4,500 square metres of space, but the collaboration partners have already signed up for one and a half times that.’ They could expand, but they’re waiting to do so until the plans have been finalised.

Research and development

It’s an ideal location, she says. ‘NHL Stenden and Drenthe College have their campus next door, and the factories we work with are right behind us.’

Few businesses in the region have a research and development department, Verhoef has noticed. ‘The buildings are strictly for production, while the economy in the region is in dire need of research and development. That’s something we have to start encouraging here.’

Paques Biomaterials, which is developing a completely biodegradable polymer, specifically came to Emmen because of the Greenwise Campus, setting up a test factory. The company employs people who’ve done technological vocational training as well as university of applied sciences graduates, says director Joost Pâques. ‘They have to be able to work together, which is normally something we’d invest in ourselves. But now there’s this campus, where this collaboration comes naturally.’

In the end, the campus is supposed to make Emmen the frontrunner when it comes to circular plastics and bioenergy, says Pâques. ‘It would make it relevant to more than just businesses in the region; it would become an attractive location for international enterprises as well. It would mean the campus has genuinely led to employment opportunities.’

Partnerships elsewhere 

The North of the Netherlands genuinely needs the University of the North, De Vries emphasises. In 20218, when he joined the university board, he discussed his plans in an interview with Dagblad van het Noorden. He then was inundated with phone calls from officials, asking if he and the UG were interested in coming to their province, city, or municipality. 

You have to make sure you don’t make it too big

Besides, this type of project has already worked elsewhere. ‘Partnerships of this kind are popping up everywhere’, he says. ‘Leiden, Delft, and Rotterdam have united in the Erasmus Verbindt project, and Twente is also working with businesses.’

De Vries himself worked at a campus like that before he joined the UG. During his time at the University of Leiden, he set up the branch in The Hague. ‘You have to figure out what works for the location’, he says. ‘In The Hague, it was international law and security. That means you have to match it up with similar programmes.’

In Leeuwarden, where De Vries became dean in 2015, the themes were public administration, sustainable entrepreneurship, language, technology & culture, knowledge infrastructures, and sustainable health. Emmen has plastics, energy, manufacturing, and healthcare & technology. In Appingedam, they want to establish a connection to the Eemshaven, while Drachten is focused on healthcare technology and high-tech because of its connections with Philips and other similar companies.


However, it’s still difficult to truly get businesses to join in, De Vries has noticed. ‘There can be this distance between companies’ daily practices and large universities.’

The House of Connections at the Grote Markt was created in order to get a better overview of the collaboration with businesses. But the board president feels this isn’t enough. He wants to intensify the collaboration with officials and parties such as the Economic Board Noord-Nederlands and the Investment and Development Agency for the Northern Netherlands. ‘That’s where all the businesses are.’

But the University of the North doesn’t need any more physical locations, he says. ‘Assen might be an option, but you have to make sure you don’t make it too big. Besides, it can be difficult for the university to get permission to officially develop things in other locations.’

The best option is to collaborate with other networks, like the ones German universities have, he says. They were inspired by the University of the North to create a similar network. ‘If we want to do something with hydrogen, we could do that ourselves. But it’s even better if we can work together with Oldenburg, Bremen, and Hamburg.’

Or take the University of Twente, he says. ‘Zwolle is kind of like a threshold, but if they’re amenable, that’s where the collaboration can start.’ It’s an important challenge to tackle next, says De Vries: ‘I want to use the University of the North to raise Groningen’s technological profile. We have to transition to sustainable electricity and energy, and those are big developments. Will we do that on our own, or together with Twenty, Eindhoven, or Delft?