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The Future of Universities: changing world orders

Dirk Jan van den Berg, President of Delft University of Technology

Published in June 2013

What’s next for universities? With the sector diversifying into online learning, not to mention the many varied opportunities offered by further and higher education colleges, it’s become harder to say what a university will look like in the future. In March 2013, leading academics and experts, organisations, and international student leaders at Warwick Universities Summit 2013 tackled the issue of universities in 2025. Speakers from across the sector discussed topics such as funding and widening access, and what the value of the global public university should be in a rapidly developing world. Here, Dirk Jan van den Berg, President of Delft University of Technology shares his views.

People sit on a grassy space

The rise of the BRICK nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Korea) is one of the defining changes of the post-Cold War world. The growing economic potential of these markets is well documented but, what is (still), less commonly discussed is the massive impact these emerging powers are bringing to bear on the global research and knowledge landscape.

Take the pioneering work of the Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge Research Project, for instance. In 1973, about two thirds of the nearly 400,000 academic research publications indexed by Thomson Reuters came from the G7 countries. Today, four times as many documents (around 1.75 million journal publications) are being indexed, and half originate from outside the G7.

This is a nothing less than a sea change, driven by the exponential growth in investment in research and development in the BRICKs. Inevitably, this trend has massive implications for universities right across the world, not least in the G7. In Europe, for example, the heritage and reputation of our universities have long underpinned our economic growth. Any significant deterioration of their international standing threatens to eventually undermine our future prosperity. The choice is simple: adapt or gradually decay. For Delft, our strategy has two principle elements.

Firstly, we have redoubled our efforts to attract the best scientists. Education and research are increasingly characterised by international co-operation and funding, and we welcome the rich opportunities offered by recruiting both academics and students from across the world.

The landmark discovery last year by Delft of the Majorana particle, for example, was the result of a collaborative effort by a Dutch PhD student and a Chinese colleague, under the supervision of Professor Leo Kouwenhoven. In today’s world, such partnerships are the norm and universities that see national borders risk becoming irrelevant.

Secondly, if European universities want to continue undertaking research at the highest level, we have to both develop better facilities (e.g. laboratories), and give more of our scientists the opportunity to work where the best campuses increasingly are (the BRICKS) -- whilst, of course, ensuring their know-how continues to benefit Europe.

The facilities of European universities, in general, are simply unable to keep up with international developments. Some are doing well, but the BRICK competition is generally advancing much faster.

Enhancing European campuses (many buildings of which date back many decades) is a precondition for attracting and retaining Europe’s knowledge capital, for more competitive EU universities in the global battle for brains, and for supporting innovation in the economy. To secure this improvement, we need to become better at sharing knowledge about campus improvement and management. Key tools to enable this would include ‘campus stress tests’, including performance benchmarks such as inter-university collaboration, space utilisation, ecological footprint, total costs, shared university-city functions. The reason why Europe has fallen behind, quite simply, is money. Whilst funding of many European universities is being eroded all the time, countries like China are investing amounts unimaginable to us in facilities. Their scientific quality generally stills falls short of ours, but their facilities are well ahead.

For leading researchers in many fields, China is becoming the place to be. And that is why Delft has opened four research centres there. In partnership with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a Beijing Research Centre is engaged mainly in research on solid state lighting; with Hohai University in Nanjing, a water research centre is focused upon delta technology and hydrology; with Wuhan University we have launched a centre for geo-information, geodesy and earth observation; and with South China University of Technology, in Guangzhou, we have started the Research Centre for Urban Systems and Environment. This represents the next stage in Delft’s global strategy. In a context where education and research are more international, and increasingly gravitating online, we are planting pieces of Delft University in the places where they have the best chance of flourishing and where the greatest yields in knowledge are to be had. And that is no longer in the Netherlands, but in the BRICKs.

In each of these four research fields (solid state lighting, water, geo-information, and urban systems) the Netherlands is a world knowledge leader. And in all of these areas of infrastructure development, China’s rapid growth means it is facing need for major new innovation and expertise in these areas. The case for collaboration is clear.

As research in science and technology knows no national borders, it is very likely we will see major research hubs developing, connected through a global network of research activity. A lot of focus is being placed on ICT technologies as a carrier of international research cooperation. However there will be no clicks without bricks and the major research hubs will develop where research infrastructure and vibrant eco-systems are best.

Top researchers will thus go to the emerging focal points of their disciplines. We have to make sure that these focal points will not be in Asia or the US alone. Europe needs to defend its rich and productive academic legacy and make sure that it plays a full role in leading edge research through strong European hubs in a global network of research cooperation.


For more from the Knowledge Centre's Global Universities Summit blog, which focussed on the issues in higher education ahead of the 2013 Global University Summit, please click here.

The Global University Summit 2013 was hosted by the University of Warwick in Whitehall, London.

Image: Delft University of Technology. Source: (tuxboard)


Dirk Jan van den BergDirk Jan van den Berg is President of Delft University of Technology, and was formerly the Dutch Ambassador to China and the Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York.