The word ‘backwater’ is often used to talk about something in a negative sense. My favourite dictionary, in the sense I want to talk about it, defines it as ‘an isolated place.’ Unimportant, or impopular even. But to me, being a backwater, can be something especially positive.
When I was about to graduate high school, I had decisions to make about my post-secondary education. The wide array of possibilities was quickly narrowed down to three — I was all but interested in going abroad; leaving me personally with three options: Delft, Eindhoven, and Twente.
Evidently, I chose Twente. However, I did not choose the UT because it was listed high on rankings (I did not even look at them), I did not choose the UT for its campus (although it was a nice bonus), I did not choose the UT for the entrepenerial possibilities. I chose it because it was a relatively small university in a community not unlike my own, close to my hometown — I chose it because it was a backwater.
Now this character is in danger, in the face of expansion. I remember talking to my high school teachers, hearing them worry how to face the growth in students after me, and how to deal with the decline after. Since I’ve been here a couple of years, that decline in Dutch students should be hitting Twente’s shores about now too. In more statistical terms, the birth rate has been slowly declining since 2000. Unless universities start competing over Dutch students more, against other (research) universities, and trade schools, then the only way for growth to happen is through even more internationals arriving on these shores too.
To me personally, Dutch schools have a duty to aspiring Dutch students first, aspiring internationals second. With the UK imploding in on itself, more and more internationals opt for the Netherlands. But we have one massive disadvantage: the lingua franca of science is just not our mother tongue. There’s already talk of upping the English language proficiency requirements, which I fear will end up (and already has) excluding some smart and engaged Dutch people. You can’t manifest proficiency into everyone, and if everyone attempts to do so these people will have nowhere to go.
Secondly, the UT has a another duty: one to its region. It’s the only university east of my hometown not in a big city. Some people just don’t yearn for the bustling city life, yet still aspire to study, innovate, and help their communities. Twente, and the other Dutch backwaters already have trouble holding onto talent, the UT should not make that even harder by becoming a Delft 2.0. Being a backwater allowed for experimentation, to let the UT forge it’s own identity, to be a compassionate part of the surrounding community. Being a backwater is core to that.
I know we’re not going to turn back the clock on internationalisation, nor should we. After all, some interaction with other people(s) furthers the pursuit of all the UT stands for. Some might even be sold (but come on, let’s be honest, probably not all immediately), and choose to stay. But it should be a facet to it, not an end goal. We are not here to educate the world, nor should we aspire to satisfy the impossible demands parts of economy impose on us.
The UT is neither isolated, impopular, nor unimportant, yet still a backwater. And as the chair of our board pointed out, a backwater can be a beautiful place to live. So let's not polder in our backwater for more growth.