'Founding the Student Union was a fantastic adventure'

| Jelle Posthuma

The UT is celebrating its 60th birthday this year. To commemorate this occasion, U-Today will travel back in time with eye witnesses every month. In this eighth episode, we look back at the years 1995-2000. 'When I first started, I encountered a highly fragmented university. There was lots of work to be done.'

Frans van Vught crosses the finish line at the Batavierenrace (2000).

As professor of public administration and scientific director of CHEPS (Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies), Frans van Vught (70) had spent many years researching universities, before he became the head of one himself in 1997. Now, more than twenty years later, he looks back on his time as Rector Magnificus of the UT. Van Vught peppers bits of scientific knowledge regarding higher education between his personal anecdotes. ‘Did you know that in the US, they did research into the average term of office for university administrators?  It turned out to be exactly 5.6 years.'

Van Vught was a UT board member for eight years. In his second term, he even held a dual post as both Rector Magnificus and President of the Executive Board. When Van Vught started his job in 1997, he encountered an 'out-of-touch' university. The UT was struggling with declining student numbers, old-fashioned education and fragmented research efforts. 'In short, there was work to be done.’

'La grande bouffe' (feast) during the introduction period in 1998.

It was his job to shake things up significantly, and that is precisely what he did. Over the following years, many saw the rector as a standard-bearer, someone who was spearheading innovation. Others, however, felt he was moving way too fast and tried to hit the brakes. ‘It's true, we were moving fast,’ says the former rector. ‘We were hard at work trying to achieve innovation.’

'My dream vision was a university with five faculties and five institutes with space and power of expression'

Reduce and unify

Van Vught provides an outline of the situation he encountered. ‘Just before I started, the UT scored nothing at all in terms of the so-called 'in-depth strategy', with which science funder NWO aimed to stimulate Dutch research. Delft and Eindhoven, conversely, got very high marks as technical universities. As such, the mood here in Twente regarding the university's own research was quite despondent. The UT was too inconspicuous and barely visible.’

Van Vught believes the problem lay in the university's considerable fragmentation. When he began, the university had no fewer than ten faculties. The UT was an insular organisation, and the various 'islands' barely worked together. ‘My dream vision was a university with five faculties and five institutes with space and power of expression. The motto was therefore: reduce and unify.’

A fine example of this ‘reducing and unifying’ is the establishment of the research institute MESA+ (‘rather a feat’). ‘It was a huge gamble, which sometimes kept me awake at night, because what did I know about nanotechnology? It also involved a fifty-million-euro investment. Fortunately, it turned out well. MESA+ became a success.’

During an information day (1996).

Profile Frans van Vught

Van Vught graduated from Utrecht University and spent several years working as a researcher at various American universities. He obtained his doctorate at the UT in 1982, and four years later, he was appointed Professor of Public Administration here. In addition, he headed the UT Institute CHEPS from 1985 to 1997, and was Dean of Public Administration from 1990 to 1994.  Van Vught was Rector Magnificus from 1997 to 2005 and also President of the Executive Board from 2001 to 2005. After Twente, he moved to Brussels where, among other things, he became an advisor to the President of the European Commission.

'Looking back, founding the Student Union was a fantastic adventure'

Student Union

Research was not the only thing that was fragmented when Van Vught took office: student life also took place on various small campus islands. ‘There were an awful lot of clubs and associations,’ the former rector recalls. ‘Each with their own little drinking room hidden in a cellar somewhere. Furthermore, UT students were rather pampered in those years. Campus life was bureaucratically controlled by a campus director. Not much was allowed, there were closing times, and students had to apply for permits for all kinds of things. I found that very unappealing. I felt that as a campus, or rather as a university community, we should be able to do better than that.’

Let the students organise things themselves, Van Vught thought. As a researcher in the United States in the 1980s, Van Vught had seen how American students in a 'student union' managed their campus themselves, down to having their own budget and staff. ‘Along with a group of UT students, I visited the UK, where they are also familiar with the phenomenon of a student union. We picked up plenty of tips and tricks there and, not long after that, the first Student Union was founded in Twente.’

‘As rector, I considered contact with students very important. They are the foundation of the academic community. During my first month, I began hosting 'breakfast with the rector’, which continued until my last month as rector. For me, this was my main way of keeping in touch with the students and finding out what was on their minds. When I left, I was totally surprised by a special programme that the students organized. Totally surprised and very touched. Looking back, founding the Student Union was a fantastic adventure. I really see it as my flagship achievement.’

Breakfast with the rector (1997).

Twente the medicine

Another flagship is the technical medicine degree programme. Twente had always wanted to set up a medical faculty, but had never achieved this aim. In the late 1990s, standard-bearer Van Vught made a new attempt. The Twente rector raised the matter with the then Minister of Education Loek Hermans. ‘I knew him a little. He felt that the plan had potential, but also said that it would not work with a regular medical programme. So Loek said: ‘Come up with something innovative. You're good at that in Twente, aren't you?’

Together with Heleen Miedema, Van Vught came up with the answer: a new degree programme in technical medicine. ‘Something like that did exist in the US, but it was completely new to the Netherlands. The existing medical faculties were dead against it. That led to quite a conflict, and it sometimes felt as though we were fighting a losing battle, but we managed in the end. From then on, the UT had a third leg besides technical and social sciences: biomedical sciences.’

'For me, managing the UT was a highlight of my life'


The psychology, business sciences and biomedical technology programmes also saw the light of day during those years. Another one of Van Vught's important achievement is the introduction of the major/minor system. Once again, he drew on the time he spent in the US for this idea. As a researcher overseas, he saw how students received a broad education by taking subjects from different fields, i.e. minors. In the Netherlands however, in the late 1990s, the university world was a 'highly specialized degree factory', says Van Vught. ‘While students benefit much more from a broad base; studies have shown as much.’

The major/minor system aimed to change that, says Van Vught, but it was not introduced without a fight. ‘It meant that degree programmes lost part of their autonomy, which some saw as an infringement. Fortunately, there was also enough support for the plan and we were able to implement it. That's how the major/minor was born in Twente. Every university in the Netherlands now has a similar system.’

Benefit concert after the fireworks disaster in 2000.

Siem Sigerius

During Frans van Vught's rectorship, future author Peter Buwalda worked as a journalist for UT-Nieuws (the predecessor of U-Today). When the two met for the first time, it turned out they shared a liking for American author Philip Roth. ‘We had heated debates about this at the campus pub,’ recalls Van Vught.

Years later, when Buwalda was working on his first novel Bonita Avenue, he interviewed Van Vught several times about his time as rector of the UT. According to the author, the former rector of the UT represents twenty percent of the main character in Bonita Avenue: Siem Sigerius, rector of Tubantia University. There are many familiar scenes in the book, says Van Vught. ‘Including some about me. When I'm asked to speak somewhere I sometimes introduce myself as Siem. Sigerius. Usually half of the audience doesn't have a clue what I'm talking about, while the other half laughs, meaning they've probably read Buwalda's book,’ he chuckles.


The five new faculties and institutes, the major/minor system and a trio of new programmes: Van Vught has left his mark on the UT. Not to mention the turning point in terms of research, the convergence of the technical universities in the 3TU (later 4TU) and the start of ECIU. ‘I didn't just mind the shop,’ concludes Van Vught. ‘I don’t like to boast, but the UT was in good shape by the time I left in January 2005. The university was growing and there was more financial breathing space.’

‘When, after eight years, I was asked to stay on for a third term, I was very hesitant,’ says Van Vught. ‘I eventually decided not to. I told you what colleagues in the US said,’ he laughs. ‘5.6 years is the max for a university administrator. And I'd already been there on my post a while longer. There comes a time when the magic has gone. There was nothing that I still wanted to do. But I look back on it with great satisfaction and gratitude. For me, managing the UT was a highlight of my life.’


Four Euros members - Joris Trooster, Jeroen Spaans, Simon Kolkman and Robert van der Vooren - in the same boat at the start of the Olympic Games.

 The rowers of the 'Twente-Vier' perform well in Sydney, but do not reach the finals. 

A charity concert for the victims of the fireworks disaster takes place on the campus.

The Supervisory Board, on the recommendation of the deans, decided that Frans van Vught would become both rector and chairman of the new Executive Board from 1 January 2001.

The day of the Enschede fireworks disaster, which wiped out the Roombeek district and killed 22 people.

Almost seventy UT students and staff lost their homes.

The Student Union was given a pot of 250,000 guilders (gulden) to breathe new life into declining student activism.

The faster and more secure Campusnet2 was launched, giving the UT the fastest internet connection in the Netherlands.

European education ministers sign the Bologna Declaration: one transparent and comparable higher education system in Europe, according to the bachelor-master model.

The UT develops its own scholarship system and more housing options for international students.

The interim board Student Campus presents its plans for student management on campus.

A Student Union must manage its own budget and entrepreneurial centre, operate buildings (Pakkerij, Bastille, Watersport centre) and bind as many associations as possible. In 1999, the first board took office.

A feat of technological progress: mobile phones and e-mail replace floppy disks in the time registration of the Batavierenrace.

The site crew of the Drienerlo Poporganisatie, led by Tonnie Buitink, continues under the registered name of EnschedePloeg.

Under the slogan 'Roomservice', higher education institutions Hogeschool Enschede (now Saxion) and the UT offer first-year students a room guarantee in Enschede.

The stagnating intake of first-year students must be boosted by new programmes, according to the Executive Board.

The Executive Board wants to get rid of the image of the UT as a narrow, mainly technical university.

The AKI Art Academy moves into part of the Chemical Engineering building.

The municipality of Enschede and the UT bid for a subsidy of 20 million guilders (gulden) for the construction of an experimental monorail between Drienerlo Station (nowadays Station Enschede Kennispark) and the campus.

Frans van Vught succeeds Theo Popma as rector magnificus.

Opening of the Pakkerij.

Mayor of Enschede, Jan Mans, opened the Pakkerij, the home of student associations Taste, Audentis, Alpha and AEGEE-Enschede. The building's name dates back to the time when textile manufacturer Van Heek used it as a warehouse. In the summer of 1996 the Pakkerij was rebuilt.

Once again fewer first-year students. The number of UT students dropped by a thousand in two years to 6112.

UT mechanical engineering student and rower at DRV Euros Niels van Steenis won gold with the Holland Eight at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.

The University of Twente starts an experiment with an extra attractive study financing regulation for female engineering students: if they don't like the engineering study after six months, they get their tuition fees and scholarships back.

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