Opening speech ASEM Rectors Conference

On 25 september 2012 state secretary Halbe Zijlstra opened the ASEM Rectors Conference in Groningen (University) with a speech.  

Ladies and gentlemen,

•    Welcome to the Netherlands. It is a great honour for me to be addressing you today at this third ASEM Rectors Conference. And I would like to take this opportunity to thank the host of this meeting, Groningen University.

•    It’s good to be here and have the opportunity to talk about internationalisation in an international gathering like this one, because it is a topic that is becoming increasingly more important in higher education. According to recent data from Unesco, the number of students who study abroad has more than doubled over the past twenty years worldwide. In 1994 there were 1.7 million, in 1999 2.1 million and according to the latest count, in 2009 the figure was 3.7 million.  

•    One of the main reasons for this explosive growth is the rise of the knowledge economy which has created a huge demand for a highly qualified labour force. And the quality of these knowledge workers is largely determined by the quality of the higher education programmes they have followed. That brings me straight to the first task for every country with a knowledge economy: improving the quality of higher education. To keep your knowledge economy competitive, you have to strengthen the quality of your higher education. Because your graduates are the raw materials that fuel your prosperity and wellbeing.  

•    Due to the current economic crisis it is not always easy to keep on investing in education. Budgets virtually everywhere are coming under pressure. But money is not the only resource: the structure of your education system in particular is a decisive factor in the quality of the higher education provided.  

•    Better educational performances can also be realised with the same budget, if you are prepared to make choices. Choices that involve (1) determining a profile, (2) selection and (3) cooperation and internationalisation. I am firmly convinced that making choices is our task for the years ahead. For that reason, I would like to briefly explain the choices I just mentioned.

•    First of all, determining your profile. A university should not want to offer everything. Such a generalisation is senseless. The Dutch scientist and researcher Robbert Dijkgraaf, who has been Director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton since 1 July 2012, had this to say on the subject: If everyone pretends to be able to do everything, no one will ever truly realise anything.” End quote.

•    A too wide offering has a levelling-off effect on quality; however, we need to have peaks. That is why universities have to determine for themselves the fields in which they can reach the top. And they should also have the courage to no longer do certain things. Choose your own profile, and have the best teachers provide high-quality, first-class teaching. This means that as a student you will no longer be able to study every subject at every university. But is also means that you will be offered the best study programme at the university you choose.

•    And that brings me to my second point: selection. Stricter selection helps each student to arrive at the right place. Students are allowed to demand a lot from their programmes, but the reverse also applies. It’s not about quantity, but about quality. Our task is to get the best out of every student.  

•    My third point is: cooperation. And  by that I mean partnerships between institutions – both nationally and internationally – and between institutions and the business community. For example, if universities were to combine their research capacity, more research mass will be created which will be more attractive to the business community. And in turn that will lead to additional research so that a snowball effect is created, leading in its turn to additional mass and greater quality.

•    Of course, cooperation also has positive effects on the quality of the education provided. A focus on sharing knowledge and experience by both teachers and researchers produces new energy and keeps everyone on their toes, so that the result is greater than the sum of the individual parts.  

•    I would like to mention internationalisation here as an extension of cooperation. Every country that makes room for internationalisation in its higher education system, sees the quality of its own education improve. The countries with outbound students, because these students bring additional knowledge back with them on their return. And the countries with inbound students, because they receive top talents from across the globe. And this has a mutually stimulating effect.

•    A recent study conducted by the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis emphasises that internationalisation in higher education brings with it overwhelmingly positive economic effects. These effects may differ from country to country depending on the size and composition of the groups of inbound and outbound students. A relatively high number of inbound students initially leads to an increase in the costs of studies, but can later result in increased tax revenues when these students remain in the country of their study to work.

•    Another aspect is that worldwide, students are increasingly more motivated to study abroad, even if they don’t actually have to leave home to follow a good programme. This is because students who gain experience abroad during their studies, on average graduate with higher final marks than those students who remain at home. Furthermore, it turns out that students who have experience in a foreign country earn higher salaries after graduation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

•    All across the globe people are looking for ways to increase the quality of higher education. In Asia too, the choice is for selection, determining a profile and cooperation. You are much further along than we are with selection, and we can learn a lot from you in that respect. And I am pleased to see that you place such a strong emphasis on international cooperation. Increasingly more higher education institutions in Asia are concluding agreements with foreign institutions in order to stimulate quality improvements. And this is bearing fruit. We see growing numbers of Asian institutions in the international rankings, from China, South Korea and elsewhere.   

•    Language is another interesting aspect. Research is used to looking beyond borders and to using English as its common language. Education is following that example as evidenced by the increase in English-language programmes in many Asian countries. And this makes student exchanges and cooperation much easier.   

Ladies and gentlemen,

•    In the Netherlands too, we have set various developments in motion aimed at raising the quality of our higher education. I have asked the research universities and universities of applied sciences to set down their ambitions and plans for the years ahead. And we will be making binding agreements in this regard, because this is no obligation-free exercise: part of the government funding provided will be performance-based. And the institutions will be held to account for their progress.

•    In addition, we are offering more room for selective admission. The focus must no longer be on admitting as many students as possible, but rather on admitting the most suitable students. This will result in a shift from quantity to quality.

•    Within that framework, we are continuing to devote a lot of attention to internationalisation. And it is producing results: in the last academic year some 87,100 foreign students were studying in the Netherlands. This represents an increase of 3.5% in the share of foreign students from 7.7% to 11.2%. Initially this mainly had to do with the mobility of students and staff, but now internationalisation is much broader and more deeply rooted in the universities. Command of several languages, admission criteria, counselling and guidance, facilities, international competencies: every aspect is being given an international component.

Ladies and gentlemen,

•    Groningen University has proven its strong international orientation by organising this conference. This is also shown in the attention to the practical details of international mobility. The International Student Barometer – a global study into the satisfaction of international students – praises Groningen University as the most highly recommended university in the Netherlands in terms of quality of education, accommodation, support and facilities. This is an achievement to be proud of, especially if – like me – you are an alumnus of this fine university. Once again, a well-deserved compliment for our host.

•    I would like to close my address with those words. And by calling on you to together work for higher quality in higher education, by determining your profile, through selection, and through cooperation and internationalisation. I wish you all an educational and fruitful conference.

Thank you for your attention.