The Future of Dutch Universities (Part 1)

At the occasion of the welcome of our new Rector Magnificus, Prof. José Sanders, I present this short reflection on a vision for the future of Dutch Universities in general and of the Radboud University in particular. Tuesday, October 17, 2023 our University also celebrates its 100th anniversary, which is an extra reason to think about where we stand as university today. This reflection looks at the future of our university but is based on my own 25 years of experience as a professor and chair of the human geography group at our university and on the way I have tried to contribute to making this future of our university.

I will try to develop this reflection in several steps.

  1. What Universities are for….
    In which I will reflect on the main conception of what a university is supposed to be.
  2. What Universities have become…
    This will be the shortest part since I want to avoid lamenting about the current universities, which I believe is not very constructive.
  3. What Universities can become…
    Here I hope to develop some ideas of what university, in my personal view could become, and provide some examples of how one could modestly contribute to this future in the framework of our geographic discipline towards a more transformative university. But first, let us look at the conception of the university…

What Universities are for…

Universities are very peculiar organisations within our society. They have a long history which, according to Harold Perkin (2007, p. 159) reaches back to ‘Confucian schools for the Mandarin bureaucracy of imperial China, the Hindu gurukulas and Buddhist vihares for the priests and monks of medieval India, the madrasas for the mullahs and Quranic judges of Islam (see e.g. my entry on the University of Samarkand),  the Aztec and Inca temple schools for priestly astronomers of pre-Columbian America, the Tokugawa han schools for Japanese samurai’ and the athenaeums and lyceums of ancient Greece monastic schools of early medieval Europe. In these early forms they served to provide higher education to train the ruling, priestly, military, and other service elites, and as Perkin (2007, p. 159) confirms, ‘taught the high culture, received doctrine, literary and/or mathematical skills of their political or religious masters, with little room for questioning or analyses’.  Also in Europe and in the Netherlands the first Universities served these purposes (Ernste,  2007), but only in Europe did the University as a school of higher learning combining teaching and scholarship in several disciplines, represented in faculties, and with a certain degree of corporate autonomy and academic freedom emerge.  The reason for this was not so much due to a hegemonic deliberate strategy which was forcefully implemented, but much more the accidental result of the chaotic and heavily contested circumstances which characterised Europe in the late Middle Ages. At those times civilisation was highly fragmented, divided and decentralised. Under these circumstances, it was difficult to identify one authority, doctrine or canon. It was rather a multi-layered and distributed patchwork of different forces and competing authorities. In these ‘interstices of power, the university could find a modestly secure niche, and play off one authority against another’ almost unintendedly, evolving into the liberal cosmopolitan university of today (Perkin, 2007, p. 160).

Without intending to violate the comparison with these days, one might think of current societal tendencies, such as populism, the waning trust in governmental authorities and in democratic institutions, the disrupting problems of climate change, geopolitics, identity politics or even culture wars, globalisation etc. as similar kind of circumstances, which might demand the creativity and leading role of today’s universities more than ever.

But before we expand our reflections to the future role of the university, let us first trace back the conception of today’s research university. The idea of the current research universities was not born in one day but emerged out of a multitude of tendencies, developments and occasions amounting at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century into the conception of the cosmopolitan liberal research university which finally really took off at the beginning of the 20th century*.  In the late Middle Ages, the university emerged as an increasingly independent and autonomous intellectual force in society, in between church and state, built on the ruins of the medieval world order and its religious struggles. Universities at those times were not neutral but were entangled with and instrumentalised by different fractions, dividing them between reformers and conservatives, realists and nominalists, and between Aristolean and humanist schools of thinking.  They were also somehow muddling through and navigating the persisting pluralist European landscape with its many rival dynastic states and other forces. In some places claiming freedom of thought was a way forward given the increasingly frustrating controversies. This freedom of thought was the basis for the new sceptical outlook associated with ‘Enlightenment’; ‘a critical, rationalistic view of the world that eschewed the emotional fanatism […] of the old doctrinal wars’ (Perkin. 2007, p. 173). Apart from these few enlightened exceptions in Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany most universities, however, were to a large degree still very much rooted in teaching some version of a rather traditional medieval curriculum, representing the ancient régime, without much relevance to modern life. In England, studying at university was thus increasingly seen as useless for practical life in modern times. In Germany, it was discussed whether universities did more harm than good and should be abolished. In France, in the course of the French Revolution, this was not just discussed but also done. Together with the awakening industrialisation, this set the scene for a total makeover of the university and the invention of the modern research university.

This invention of the modern research university can be traced back to two simultaneous parallel and independent developments in Scotland as well as in Germany.  Instead of universities organised around regent masters who taught the whole traditional knowledge canon, the specialised single-subject professor was introduced, who was given the task of an active innovator of their specialised field, serving the needs of the industrialising society with its deepening division of labour and becoming leading in scientific and technological development as well as in the political-economic and social-scientific reflection on society.  These professors did not just teach what they always taught, but needed to devote themselves to research delving into the yet unknown new knowledge as well. In addition, as some historians argue (Josephson, 2014; Wellmon, 2015), the emerging book market and changes in the public sphere contributed to the general literacy of the people and exposed professors to competition as authorities of knowledge, positioning them in a permanent exchange of ideas in academic writings and debate. This new conception of the university and the new role of professors also opened new and alternative sources of income and support for the university, highly welcomed because of the rather needing economic situation in Scotland and Germany at that time. These new universities were not the places where the happy few were privately taught (and privately paid for their education) anymore, but increasingly became institutions providing education and research as a public service to society and to the economy as a whole, to an increasing degree paid out of public funds. Education and research as public goods paid out of public funds.

When in Germany (Prussia) the more enlightened university of Halle was suppressed by the French after Napoleon’s victory at Jena and Auerstedt in 1806, and almost half of the Prussian kingdom fell to Napoleon, leaving Prussia suffering from heavy occupation costs and war reparations, King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia tried to compensate for the material loss by boosting Prussia’s intellectual power. He appointed Wilhelm von Humboldt, the brother of the famous geographer Alexander von Humboldt (see also the legacy of Alexander von Humboldt at the Geography Department of the Radboud University), to initiate the reform of the Prussian educational system and the foundation of what is now the von Humboldt University of Berlin, according to these new enlightened ideas. The success of this reform attracted many new students from all over Europe and beyond. But probably even more important was the growing industrial, economic and political power and military strength of the German empire, fostered by the new educational system and the new orientation in university research. This gave this educational model almost paradigmatic status and carried it all over the world partly also in the vein of the global colonial expansion.

Wilhelm von Humboldt did not invent the new educational system and the modern research university from scratch but built his ideas on the shoulders of a number of other giants such as Herder, Fichte, Steffens, Goethe, Schiller, Pestalozzi, Kant and Schleiermacher. He elegantly synthesised their ideas and institutionalised and implemented them in the new educational system, even though his role was only acknowledged to an almost mythological level much later.

Humboldt’s model for education has become known as the German Education Ideal or what would probably be a better translation: ‘Formation Ideal’ (‘Bildungsideal’), combining the Humanism, Enlightenment and Idealism of his times. It was inspired by the Greek paideia as an early example of the comprehensive development of human spiritual, aesthetic and physical abilities with the aim of moulding a complete and harmonious citizen (Östling, 2018, p. 37). It also followed Johan Gottfried von Herder’s ideas of a dynamic open curriculum for the purpose of realising general human values.  The basic principles of Humboldt’s educational model can be summarised as follows (Hastedt, 2012, p. 9-15):

  • The unrestricted subjective acquisition of knowledge in dialectical relation between the self and the surrounding culture and world will (trans)form each person’s personality in a holistic way and will transform the intellectual abilities towards general human values and to what is assumed to be a ‘better’ world. The subjective acquisition of knowledge refers to self-education or own free insights instead of just complying with imposed knowledge. The holistic aspect of personality implies that it is not about one-sided skills or bare specialised knowledge, irrespective of how important that might be as a prerequisite for education, but more generally about insights in a broader multi-perspectival context.
  • The mobilisation of creativity produces new original insights through curiosity-driven research of the hitherto unknown and through active dialogue among both students and teachers. The need to continuously seek new insights is partly based on Herder’s ideas that culture and knowledge need to be developed further to compensate for the deficiencies of the non-determined human being in the lack of a defined ecological niche (anthropological indigence). Without education, the human being is constantly endangered. This also implies that there is no final and general pattern or structural knowledge framework in which each person should assimilate, but rather that each person follows her own individual pathway of development feeding and critically developing individuality, while at the same time reflexively positioning the individual in the broader pluralistic context.

The following audio podcast (27 min. in German) provides a portrait of Wilhelm von Humboldt and his Educational Ideal. Click here to download the English translation as pdf.

Humboldt’s model is more than just a pedagogical ideal. His main achievement was the elaboration of a concrete plan for its operationalisation and institutionalisation and that he convinced the Prussian King to implement it. It is difficult to pinpoint in more detail the exact design principles he used because his plans in writing remained unfinished, but I will give it a try:

Research orientation: Curricula are not supposed to be restricted to ready available applied knowledge but geared towards finding general truths, including factual, moral and aesthetic ‘truth’ or maybe better: towards some degree of ‘intersubjective consensus’ on those issues. This implies that the university curriculum is a vehicle in the individual and collective search or research process; in the development of the individual towards personality, able to contribute to society in general and to help solve specific future problems in particular. Each academic programme, therefore has the objective to deliver a full-fledged researcher, able to discover new knowledge and develop new creative insights themselves. In contrast to schools, which provide fixed and final knowledge, scientific knowledge should be seen as inherently unfinished and always calling for further research, as ‘something not yet achieved and as something that cannot ever be completely achieved’. University curricula therefore provide basic knowledge as conceptual tools for further thinking and methodological skills for the critical assessment and judgement of new and old insights. Scientific knowledge is an open-ended phenomenon, also implying that all types of one-sidedness must be opposed in favour of a truly holistic truth or general knowledge. One can imagine how this principle unleashed and facilitated the immense scientific progress we have experienced since modernity.

Multi-perspectivity: This holistic perspective also implies another structural aspect of the new research university, namely that within the university, ideally all disciplines and all collections of knowledge in the form of libraries and data archives should be united in one place or otherwise be made mutually accessible and should enable the interaction on a level playing field for the sake of the joint cause. So the traditional medieval faculty of Arts (or philosophy) sometimes also designated as Studium Generale, as a prerequisite for entering one of the higher faculties of Theology, Law, or Medicine, was now seen as equivalent and at the same level as the other faculties. Later on, in the course of further specialisation and deepening division of labour, more disciplines and faculties were added. Even though we nowadays, sometimes seem to forget, it meant that these disciplines and faculties would be in constant dialogue with each other. The modern research universities, as Humboldt envisioned them, according to the educational ideal, are supposed to be places where one is stimulated to look beyond one’s plate.  One should not just look beyond one’s faculty or discipline, but also beyond one’s school of thought. On all levels, universities should be the hub of the ceaselessly self-questioning sciences and of the gathering of creative scepticism.  The university is thus the institution that gives shape to the notion of the unity of reason. This is not unity in the sense of an unchanging and undifferentiated truth, but rather the unification of all kinds of knowledge under the authority of reason (Loose, 2016, p. 19). Even though the paths to real, freely gained and true knowledge are manifold, they are all oriented towards a totality that unites them all in the same perspective of searching for truth(s). While the word ‘university’ in the past mainly referred to the universal community or guild of teachers and students, from now on it takes up the meaning of the universality of knowledge.


Academic freedom: The principles above also imply that universities and knowledge production should not be led by anything else than reason, not by politics, ideologies, economic interests or bureaucratic directions. The university should be autonomous. She should set her own rules and regulations and procedures on the basis of reason. Wilhelm von Humboldt was seeking to set up universities with their own estates as a source of income, enhanced by government funding, guaranteeing them economic independence.  Even though he could not fully realise this in the case of the University in Berlin, this principle of economic autonomy was nevertheless embraced as an essential element of academic freedom. Another aspect is that researchers and lecturers should have the freedom to focus on whatever topic they believe to be relevant to the development of new scientific insights. The same freedom of choice should be allowed to students. They should be able to choose by whom they want to be taught and what topics they expect to be taught about. So also in this respect, the freedom of the mind in following their curiosity and their own line of thought in seeking new insights was held in high regard. For students this implies freedom of choice of educational programme, and within that programme freedom of choice of course of specialisation and of elective courses, within and beyond their own discipline. For professors and lecturers this implies that their own research specialisation should be allowed a place in the curriculum or that they should be entitled to ‘lecture on the topic of their choice’ (sometimes also designated as venia legendi). The issue of academic freedom is sometimes coined as THE general principle, under which all other aspects of the educational ideal can be subsumed, which also makes this principle as the most claimed and contested element of the educational ideal (see for the Netherlands e.g. also Verburgt & Duyvendak, 2023).

Societal responsibility: This academic freedom does not stand alone but is directly related to a strong responsibility to apply the newly gained knowledge and skills for the better of society and as a moral duty for the sake of humanity in general. Therefore the unfolding of the individual human values, abilities, talents and creativity as a main objective of the educational ideal is closely entangled with the idea of the unfolding of the same potentials for all, for society as a whole, and for the world in general. This principle goes back to the Greek ideal of paideia, the development of moral virtues and logical and rhetorical skills which were thought essential for becoming a good human being and democratic citizen and contributing actively and positively to society (Bohlin, 2008, p. 1).  The educational ideal sees also the content and direction of moral responsibilities as a component and result of the process of scientific enlightenment and reasoning and not as a pre-given or fashionable set of moral opinions. Next to fundamental questions about what values form the basis of our general moral judgments and responsibility, more contingent and uncertain normative-ethical considerations of individual situations are part of the education of societal responsibility. Essential is that in this process the most indisputable and self-evident moral principles can be scrutinised, to ensure that they are based on reasonable insights and not on the imposition of norms (Hegselmann, 1990). So while university teachers can claim special authority in their various fields of expertise, they can hardly do the same with respect to moral values and virtues. the emphasis here is – as Bohlin (2008) asserts – on freedom as a condition of self-cultivation, even though this freedom is in most cases within certain limits, and is supposed to be directed towards the forming of certain values such as the inviolability of human life, individual freedom and integrity, the equal value of all people irrespective of race, gender or other traits, solidarity with the weak and vulnerable, justice, tolerance and responsibility. This principle, therefore, intends to raise the critical engagement with improving the world and to educate for the sake of contributing to the solution of topical societal problems. This is also the essence of any critical approach within science. Knowledge is therefore also never neutral. In an open democratic society the university is thus also the intellectual conscience of society, or as Jean-Pierre Wils (2012, p. 55), of the Radboud University says: ‘In a functioning democracy, society has a right to independent institutions of reflexivity guaranteed by the public hand, as universities should be. Universities are nests of resistance to the populist simplification of social debate and guardians of the public culture, of civil society. […] When they lose that function, they are no longer universities’.

Science or academia are therefore also seen as the fourth, or if we include media, the fifth basic institution and power in society next to the trias politica, protecting society against a lack of knowledge and short-sightedness, employing well-refected and evidence-based knowledge and a long-term vision (Brandt, 2011, p. 198). This comes pretty close to the main aim of The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR), but it is tellingly seldomly found as the main aim of current research universities.

Progressive increase in freedom and responsibility: As mentioned above an academic attitude, or readiness for academic education is not something we are born with or which falls from heaven. To become an articulate, self-conscious learner, one first needs to be equipped with the necessary tools and basic knowledge. One might also circumscribe these as propedeutic knowledge and skills. This also defines the didactical difference between the way this propedeutic knowledge and skills are taught and the more academic knowledge and skills are taught. The latter is less a form of teaching, but much more a form of coaching and Socratic learning. Humboldt e.g. states that the university teacher therefore is no longer a teacher and the student is no longer someone merely engaged in the learning process but a person who undertakes his research, while the professor directs his research and supports him in it (Humboldt, 1920, p. 261). Roughly one could say that in elementary school, students were to learn basic skills, like listening, discussing, reading, writing, arithematics, etc. and very basic general knowledge. In high school, the curriculum would aim to teach students how to learn or internalise more specific content, while also showing them how to learn and how to become intellectually independent. At university, they would be free members of a community devoted to curiosity-driven learning (Sorkin, 1983, p. 63). Self-evidently, if we apply this general principle to any new field of knowledge with which students are confronted, the same stages in learning and teaching repeat also within academia.

Dialectics of formation: Although not a principle in itself, it is noteworthy here that all the above principles are based on dialectical processes between freedom/restrictions, individualism/universalism, distance/engagement, plurality/unity, known/(still)unknown, disciplinarity/multidisciplinarity, theory/practice, elitism/inclusiveness, ivory tour/outreach to the general population, dedicated propadeutic knowledge/knowledge out of curiosity, historical heritage/future orientation, etc. etc. Even though these different dialectics cannot be mistaken for a pre-given linear overall development, it does show the mechanism of continuous change and back-and-forth dynamics in the world of academic knowledge.

These principles can still be found in the statutes of most universities and in many state laws on higher education, but often in different degrees of detail and with varying operational implications. Over the years they also have been changed and updated under the influence of other rationales and changing situations. Irrespective of these developments, the humanistic university ideal is alive and kicking, and as topical as ever, as former minister of education of Bavaria and philosopher, Nida-Rümelin (2010; 2013) convincingly shows.  But even when the ideal is still upheld, this does not mean that realities cannot substantially deviate from this ideal. This ideal is thus constantly under threat and it calls for continuous critical reflection to ensure that our educational model is still future-proof.

* For a more detailed history of these early days see Koch (2008), de Ridder-Symoens (1992; 1996), Rüegg (2004; 2011), and for a brief overview Perkins (2007).

What Universities have become…

Even if there is a certain consensus of the general educational ideal and we formulate it in the university statutes this ideal is therewith not a reality yet. Universities have operationalised this general model of the ideal research university in different ways under different circumstances and have attempted to find workable compromises on each of these principles. Stefan Collini (2012) gives an overview of the kinds of dilemmas and compromises we can observe in these respects. But I will write about this more extensively soon.


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