Will some universities of applied sciences become a new kind of research university?

Reclamebord voor de online open dagen van de Hogeschool Rotterdam
Wikimedia Commons / Donald Trung

Dutch higher education may be on the brink of a major change. It looks like new universities will be needed to cope with the demand and the distinction between research universities and universities of applied sciences (in Dutch, hogescholen) may even disappear altogether.

But first, a bit of context. The number of high school graduates who are qualified to attend research universities (VWO) but end up going to universities of applied sciences (HBO) has been declining for years, which is part of the reason why enrolments in universities of applied sciences have been dropping overall. Since financing from the government is based on the number of students enrolled, the universities of applied sciences located in regions with shrinking populations are finding it particularly hard to maintain their educational offerings. 

Meanwhile, research universities have been growing year after year, as their popularity increases not only among Dutch high school students but among international students as well. No wonder the Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, is concerned about the future of higher education in the Netherlands. In his view, research universities and universities of applied sciences should function as a single institution. “The Netherlands has already made significant progress in this area,” he said.

“HBO is key”
In June, Minister Dijkgraaf was asked if universities of applied sciences could be tasked with providing academic education in regions facing a population decline. This would allow them to attract more students, not to mention it would benefit said regions. He played his cards close to his chest: “I’m going to launch a preliminary study after the summer break, the goal of which will be to get a clear sense of the roles of each of the two institutions. HBO is key because of its close connections with the job market and the professional depth of the programmes it offers.”

The minister was also asked about the possibility to create new research universities in regions facing depopulation, as there are historical examples of universities of applied sciences that became research universities. “That’s a very good question, and we need to be able to ask all kinds of questions,” Dijkgraaf replied.

The minister also criticised the "barriers" between senior secondary vocational education (MBO) and higher education. “Couldn’t we remove a couple of them, taking the study paths of individual students as the starting point?” he wondered. “In fact, I believe we should place senior secondary vocational education, HBO education and research university education on a continuum – not in a hierarchical order.”

International students
In other words, Dijkgraaf does not seem all too attached to the dual system that establishes a strict distinction between research universities and universities of applied sciences. His response to the growing number of international students is also relevant here. Research universities are begging for legislative changes that would allow them to better manage the influx of students by introducing quotas for international students. The University of Amsterdam even requested to "experiment" with such quotas.

But the start of the present academic year made it clear that Dijkgraaf isn’t exactly in a hurry. He said that it has become a tradition for research universities to complain about this matter this time of the year and that he did not want to let this affect his decision-making. According to the minister, the internationalisation of Dutch universities obviously offers “significant advantages for the labour market and for the quality of education”.

The minister also mentioned that he is working on a strategy but it is not yet clear what this strategy will look like. Research universities are already struggling, so if Dijkgraaf wants to continue welcoming such a number of international students, there’s only one solution: spreading the load by letting new universities take over some of the burden.

Research at universities of applied sciences
How would universities of applied sciences feel about becoming a new kind of research university? They have been working on strengthening their research activities for some years now, not to mention they also have their own professors, which are called lectors. They have their own version of PhD tracks as well, at the end of which researchers obtain a so-called professional doctorate.

Moreover, universities of applied sciences will have to come up with something to combat the enrolment decline. A committee of lectors led by Ron Bormans, president of the Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences, is currently examining the position of the HBO sector. Although the committee has yet to issue a report, Bormans already has strong opinions on the matter (article only available in Dutch, Ed.)

For one, he believes that HBO education neds to become more attractive to high school graduates again, which is not the same thing as "playing university", in his own words. In fact, the opposite seems to be happening: it is universities that are "playing university of applied sciences" by offering vocational programmes. “Take the training courses for university teachers we’ve been seeing in recent years, for instance. We need to ask ourselves what type of programme belongs where in our educational system.”

If higher professional education is to become attractive to high school students qualified to attend a research university, the obvious solution would be to offer them vocational training at a higher level, which would require the introduction of vocational universities that would also be accessible to high school graduates only qualified to attend HBO education (the so-called HAVO graduates).

Is this too radical an idea? If the minister prefers a more moderate solution, he could choose to award the status of research university to a small number of universities of applied sciences in depopulating regions. If this were to prove successful, others could eventually follow.

Such "hybrid" universities of applied sciences already exist, so to say. The Breda University of Applied Sciences, for example, offers Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes at research university level. It might be no coincidence that Dijkgraaf gave a speech there at the beginning of the academic year. Later that day, he also gave an address at Maastricht University, the most international university in the Netherlands. Taken together, this could be seen as a coherent statement.

The Hanze University of Applied Sciences, in Groningen, and the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences also offer academic Master’s programmes. However, these programmes are isolated cases that don’t represent a larger systemic change.

It remains to be seen whether such a change will actually come about. If all goes well, Bormans and his team of lectors will publish their findings coming autumn, while Minister Dijkgraaf is expected to present his own study to the House of Representatives next spring.

Some difficult questions may arise along the way, though. For instance: what consequences will such changes have for research funding? At research universities, education has traditionally been tied to research – some of it applied, some of it theoretical. So, if the introduction of a new system were to come at the expense of existing research budgets, research universities most likely protest it. The current research budgets are practically set in stone. Old universities such as Leiden and Utrecht receive more funding than Maastricht and Tilburg, for example, based solely on when they were founded.

If the universities of applied sciences are to become a new kind of research university, will this go beyond a name change? Will they also be given the means to become an attractive alternative for a considerable number of high school graduates and international students? 

In the past, the House of Representatives was hesitant to grant research funding to academic programmes at universities of applied sciences. But perhaps a carefully thought-out redesign of the higher education system could help soften their stance.