Growing pains

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U-Today’s editorial. Through his outspoken growth ambitions, chair of the Executive Board Vinod Subramaniam says the UT is taking its responsibility. As such, the UT is at significant risk of dancing too eagerly to the industry's tune.

'Perhaps twenty thousand students, or even more.' It is a strikingly concrete number that the chair of the Executive Board, Vinod Subramaniam, mentioned in an interview with U-Today, indicating the UT's growth ambitions. Twenty thousand. Mind you, five years ago, in the relatively carefree year 2017, the student population on campus was hovering around ten thousand. With some sense of Amsterdam bravado, we are setting course to double that number.

The main argument of the chairman: we need to meet the ‘huge demand’ for technical talent, both from society and the labour market. And in this, the UT wants – no, needs – to fulfil its responsibility. Being with this intended growth. Call it ambitious, hubristic, or audacious. With its sixty years of existence, the UT is the temperamental teenager within the Dutch academic landscape. And that teenager apparently has plenty of wishes, dreams and ambitions for growth, with the world at its feet.

But let us not forget that this teenager has already been subject to its fair share of growing pains in recent years. Programs were outgrowing their capacity partly due to a substantial internationalization effort. This lead to concern about quality and an emergency response in the form of numeri fixi. Workload issues and a disrupted balance between teaching and research have structurally surfaced in many an employee survey in recent years. Or take the current glaring lack of capacity and the struggles found in filling vacancies. And what is there to make of the collective lament regarding university funding last year? In fact, it was Subramaniam himself who was vocal about his disturbance caused by the perverse incentives of the funding system and – above all – how it forces universities to grow even when it is undesirable.

That the UT wants to rise to the challenge to provide the region in particular with sufficient (technical) talent is a noble ambition. There is something to be said for that, given the university's history of origins and its social function. But it is also in danger of being to eager to function as a servant to the business community. The same regional business community that complains and rambles about talent leaving Twente. But is retaining talent not at the heart of this brain drain, rather than in the mass training of talent? Of all stakeholders, it is the business community and the Twente region that should step in here and take their responsibility.

Nevertheless, when talking about growth of the UT, it remains to be seen how gloomy the situation will eventually become. Between the lines, the chair of the Executive Board hints at more cooperation, the responsibility of the entire education chain and a hefty increase in 'students' from the newly created Life Long Learning path. Besides, according to the projections in the most recent 'Spring Memorandum', the number of students roaming the campus will increase to fifteen thousand students. Still an ambitious number.

Simultaneously, the UT would be wise to reflect on its own reasoning. It would be a shame to see an institution that once began as an ‘experiment in the woods’ and which grew into an enterprising, academic and compassionate community of values decay into a dime-in-a-dozen diploma factory. And it is pre-eminently the intended upscaling that is exerting pressure on these core values. In the words of emeritus university professor Dave Blank as spoken during his farewell interview: ‘Foster the smallness of scale and agility’. Perhaps growth – in the current adolescent stage of this university – is not the right message to send.

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