Remco Breuker speaks on a stage
Remco Breuker speaks on the occasion of the opening of the 2019 academic year in Leiden. (Photo: Marc de Haan)

Studium Generale and Delta are organising a debate on TU's growth plans on 9 May. Delta asked panel member and Leiden University professor Remco Breuker about his perspective

Lees in het Nederlands 

The general public knows the Leiden University Korea expert Remco Breuker primarily for his area of expertise, as he is regularly asked to give his opinion in newspapers and television programmes. But to the staff of Dutch universities, Breuker is probably more familiar as the outspoken member of the academic platform WOinActie, columnist for Delta’s Leiden University sibling magazine Mare and fervent tweeter.

Together with Rens Bod (University of Amsterdam) and Ingrid Robeyns (University of Utrecht), he co-authored in 2020 the pamphlet 40 Theses on Science in which the three presented a vision of how the university “could be different and better”. Along with praise, this pamphlet had also encountered sharp criticism. According to the dean of the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences of the UvA, Agneta Fischer, the argumentation in thesis 20 (‘Scientists have to once again assume control on the board of the university’) reveals “naivety and hopeless nostalgia”.

Delta spoke with Breuker at his workplace, surrounded by walls lined with books. Well, at least for now, because the space for bookcases has been a heated point of dispute in Leiden University politics. That is just one of the symptoms of the unhealthy growth of the Dutch universities, he explained.

TU Delft wants to expand. Initial reports mentioned 40,000 students. What did you think when you first heard that?
“I had a million questions. Do we really need so many new Delft engineers? In what fields? What kinds of students are they and where will they go after graduation? Who will pay for all that?
28,000 students is already a large university. Do you really want to grow any larger? I would rather propose dividing up TU Delft. That seems to me to be more manageable, while you can continue to collaborate. I am convinced that no one benefits from large organisations.”

Isn’t it a social responsibility to expand if there is a demand for Delft engineers?
“It is also socially responsible to think first before fulfilling all the requests you receive. The idea that we need more engineers is definitely not excluded a priori, but I do wonder: what for? If we need them to raise the dikes higher, I would be first in line to say, let’s do it. If it concerns helping the fossil fuel industry, let’s think about that a minute. It is not so much what I think as whether, given the challenges we are facing, that is not something to be just done willy-nilly.”

And why not just do what society is asking for?
“I myself am the son of a Delft engineer who worked for Shell. He is not the only one of his generation, nor of the preceding and following generations. Delft has always been a principal supplier of engineers for companies like Shell, but today we as a society think differently about what this means for us and what it could mean in the future. And that is putting it euphemistically.
It is part of your social responsibility, as an educational institute, to reflect on what industry you are training students for. Such considerations have a place when the executive board of TU Delft holds a strategic awayday with the deans. Only when you know which direction you want to go in can you decide whether to expand or not.
This decision sounds very much like ‘Your wish is our command’. That does not seem to be a real argument to me, at best it is a strategic choice presented as an argument. And if it has been thought about, it is in society’s interests to publish those considerations.”

  • The event on growth plans on May 9 will last from 5 to 7 p.m. It is in the form of a theater dialogue. The event page on the website of Studium Generale explains what a theater dialogue is. You can sign up by clicking this link

What is the problem with expansion?
“In a small organisation it is easier to see what is happening on the workfloor: you simply walk over there. One example from years ago concerns the time that the Maagdenhuis building was occupied as a protest by students in Amsterdam. There was quite an uproar going on, and the problem was also familiar in Leiden. I walked out of my office on Friday and who did I bump into across the way? Carel Stolker (the then rector magnificus of the University of Leiden, Ed.). “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I just thought I would check that everything is OK here.” That is a very romantic example, and we were already rather large at that time (in 2015 the University of Leiden had 24,000 students, in contrast to 34,000 in 2021, Ed.), but I think that it is great to have a rector or a dean or whomever, who can just check how things are going.
If you have 40,000, 50,000 perhaps even 60,000 students, you can’t just take a look. In principle, it is not so bad if you can’t do that yourself, but you have to leave it to a larger group of people who are closer to you than to the primary processes.
In that respect, I am a primary-process fundamentalist. Universities have three legal tasks: education, research and outreach (TU Delft refers to valorisation, Ed.). These are the core aspects to focus on. Everything else is an afterthought or intended to make the rest possible. What you see now at universities is that the expansion appears primarily in those parts of the university that are not concerned with the primary tasks.”

The policy richness of universities has increased enormously

Where does the limit lie? Doesn’t everyone contribute to the primary tasks?
“I don’t think so. I would even be willing to suggest that some tasks at my university are being carried out that directly counteract the primary tasks. The policy richness of universities has increased enormously, which seems imprudent to me. You need a buffer between what the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OC&W) wants and what the workfloor is doing here. Policy has been created for this, as far as I understand it, to ensure that OC&W and all rules and directives do not ruin the primary tasks too much. We need a light intermediate layer for this. But in practice we see that this intermediate layer has expanded greatly. About 35% of any university consists of support services. I feel that is rather too much.
It is like an ageing man – this is a gendered example, but it is not inaccurate, I believe. If an elderly man starts putting on weight, that is rarely in his muscles, it is usually around his waist. If you expand the university now, you run the risk that the emphasis on the primary processes, which are already under attack, will be endangered even more.”

But can’t a larger university provide more education and research with the same supporting layer?
“Certainly, and we can also immediately help solve world hunger and achieve world peace. No, that is the most glaring wishful thinking. We saw this happening in the 1990s. Upscaling was the primary reason for many high schools to merge. Now we think differently about this, because it didn’t work as we expected. It also puts the primary process in difficulty.”

So should the university shrink instead?
“I have proposed that a hundred times. The human scale is extremely important, and it is easier to lose sight of it in large organisations. Chop the entire organism into pieces, like an earthworm. There is only a limited quantity of food, in this case students, so the earthworms that have been chopped up will never grow as large as their predecessor.”

Is the proposed multicampus strategy another potential solution?
“Aren’t colonial empires history? I bring out the big guns immediately, but I also have doubts. I think that collaboration, like between Leiden and The Hague, is extremely important, but why not do it on a basis of equality? Chop the earthworm into pieces.
I understand that it is difficult for managers to let go of control. It is a bit like watching your children leave home. You try to keep in touch with them in any way possible. It may be a good plan, if you let go of centralised authority. Otherwise you are just governing an old-fashioned colonial empire.
I also do not imagine simply individual islands: intense collaboration is extremely important. Perhaps the university should be an archipelago of islands, with ferries running between them.”