Society is challenged, and with it, we—universities—are challenged. Over the last decades we have seen a number of world-wide developments that have challenged, and still challenge the position and role of universities. How can we best act upon this? Are we prepared for the future?
As written in the strategy of the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences (2021), throughout the world we are facing a number of developments that all require tremendous societal changes to deal with. We see the effects of climate change all around us, requiring fundamental steps in the way we organize our society, economy, and (public) space, with more attention to the environment, and a rethinking of our use of energy, water, and materials. We see, in most of the Western world, an ageing population, which requires us to rethink our healthcare system, and put greater emphasis on healthy lifestyle and improving well-being, and which has a direct effect on the way we view work, income and pension provisioning. Changes in the geopolitical landscape require a rethinking about our safety and security, and puts the notion of freedom, which was long taken for granted in a country like the Netherlands, into a different perspective. There is a growing awareness that the existing structure of the economy, that has a primary focus on consumption and growth, is no longer the way to go forward. The organization of states and international institutions also needs to be reassessed in a world that is likely to get less dominated by our Western worldview in which democracy and civil liberties are valuable assets. The increasing digitalization of society and economy and the impact of AI accelerates some of the above mentioned changes; polarization and increasing tensions between different groups in society are affected by the speed of zero-delay digital platforms, not to mention the rise and proliferation of fake news and the embracing and spreading of alternative truths.
In this landscape of profound societal changes and challenges, there is an important task for universities, as they provide the higher education to the future generations of citizens, such that they become responsible, emphatic, and decisive. Fulfilling this responsibility is happening in a time when the role of universities, of scientist or even science in general is questioned by populists voices. It is worrisome to see governments in many countries taking actions to decrease academic freedom; a recent survey (Kinzelbach et al., 2023) reports an increase in academic freedom in only 5 countries (accounting to only 0.7% of the world population), and a decline in over 20 mostly large countries (accounting to more than 50% of the world population). The Netherlands only takes position in the 30-40%-quantile.
The way universities perform their core tasks is increasingly affected by digitalization as well. Digitalization not only forces us to rethink the way we offer our education, that is, on/off campus, online, hybrid, or blended, but also challenges us in the way we interact with and evaluate the performance of our students. Think for example of the use of AI in writing assignments. In a now 10-year old essay (Harden, 2013), it was predicted that in 10 years’ time most university offerings would be done via online platforms such as Coursera or EdX. Time has told us differently, fortunately. And although the pandemic proved to be an enormous boost to the use of digital tools in academia, it also underlined the value of live education and interaction among students and staff on campus; the notion of Bildung appears difficult to grasp purely digitally. However, this is not to say that we can (and should) just stick to our usual way of working.
The university operation is affected by globalization as well—in many ways. In the last decade, Dutch universities have welcomed increasing numbers of international students and staff. This internationalization has brought advantages in terms of knowledge, new perspectives and experiences and mutual learnings. Yet it also requires extra attention and care, for example to make our classrooms truly inclusive, to address topics not just from a North-Western European perspective and to make everyone feel at home on campus, to mention a few.
With a history dating back some thousand years, universities are among our oldest institutions. Throughout the ages, especially when multiple bigger challenges occur simultaneously, universities have shown to be able to show resilience and adapt to new circumstances, thereby adhering to their core values. But when it comes to adaptation, universities sometimes show inertia. Being large institutions themselves, their maneuverability can be hampered by conflicting interests, historical contradictions or even political tensions. Where university staff is typically highly knowledgeable and skilled in objectively observing and explaining societal challenges and needs, applying these knowledge and skills on themselves can be quite challenging. Here the notional of ‘character building’ comes in, central to the Tilburg Educational Profile (Van Lenning and De Regt, 2017), which, among others, stresses the importance of being able to reflect also on one’s own behavior and acting.
Given the above, it is great to have a university college in our ranks, as a place of free thinkers, teaching students in a wide variety of topics, with a strong emphasis on critical thinking and (self-) reflection capabilities. University colleges and their liberal arts and sciences programs have a tradition of being more experimental, more interactive, more diverse and more daring than other parts of the university, and therefore, probably better prepared for change. And so it has been the case in Tilburg since its inception. The University College Tilburg is a thriving community, thanks to the many colleagues from different Schools that contribute, and the growing number of students from various backgrounds that are welcomed and served. Compared to other schools and universities in the Netherlands, the Tilburg University College approach is different in the sense that it aims to focus on output excellence and student growth, rather than on input excellence as is almost exclusively the case elsewhere (Deresiewicz, 2014; Sandell, 2020). This approach gives our university college a special position in the landscape: that of a living example of diversity and inclusion. And it does deliver, as has been shown firmly in a recent international assessment. That does not mean, however, that we can stop thinking and adapting, but I do think that the overall set-up of our university college gives us a head-start into the future.
In the development of the UCT, the Dean Alkeline van Lenning takes a special role. Under her leadership, the university college has developed into a well-established and top-level university college, with an excellent and inclusive atmosphere, for both students and staff, that currently welcomes around 120 new bachelor students from around the globe every year, preparing them for a wide variety of master-programs three years later. One cannot easily overestimate how important the Dean’s role in this has been, and how much energy and dedication has been put in by her. The faculty board of the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences, is extremely thankful to Dean Alkeline van Lenning for her endless efforts, care, firmness, thought, friendship and the hard, dedicated and visionary work, in making the university college what it is now: our own private educational utopia. As faculty board we are determined to continue our support to the University College Tilburg. Thank you Alkeline!
De Regt, H., & Van Lenning, A. (2017). Exploring an educational Vision for Tilburg University. Tilburg Series in Academic Education
Deresiewicz, W. (2014). Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The way to a Meaningful Life. Simon & Schuster.
Harden, N. (2013). The End of the University as We Know It. The American Interest. January/February.
Kinzelbach,K., Lindberg, S.I., Pelke,, L., and Spannagel, J. (2023). Academic Freedom Index 2023 Update. FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg and V-Dem Institute. doi: 10.25593/opus4-fau-21630
Sandell, M.J. (2020). The Tyranny of Merit.
Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences (2021). Shaping our future society together. Strategy 2022-2027.