How Universities of the Netherlands came into being
Since November 2021 we have been known as Universities of the Netherlands: 14 public universities with more than 61,000 employees, standing ready every day to provide 340,000 students with high-quality academic education and research. The universities collaborate on a daily basis in networks, committees, on platforms, in joint programmes and in professorships. This has not always been the case – the association has had a turbulent history.
The 1940s saw intensive discussions about possible reformations of higher education. The universities felt a need to collaborate in order to present a united front to the government. At the same time it was feared that intensive collaboration would cause the universities to lose their unique identities. Would it be possible to retain their individual characters and autonomy if they united in an association?
The Reinink Commission attempted to formulate the conditions for a collective body. The basic idea was that the universities should continue to make their own appointments and the government should be responsible only for providing funding. A coordinating body was necessary to effectively implement and manage this concept. And so in 1956 the universities voluntarily took the initiative, which led to creation of the Interuniversity Contact Organisation (IUCO).
Unfortunately the IUCO came to an end four years later, in 1960. Minister of Education Cals issued legislation in which he strongly limited the powers of another body, the Higher Academic Council; this led to creation of the Academic Council. The government itself was the only party to feel enthusiasm for this move: the education sector was highly critical, partly because of the complicated structure – it involved more than thirty sections and four hundred stakeholders. So in 1976 it was no surprise when a critical report on the Council was issued. According to this report the Council achieved very little in terms of consultation or coordination, and instead simply noted the divergent standpoints of the universities.
In 1983 Minister of Education Deetman and Director-General In ’t Veld issued new plans that made a clear distinction between advice (by independent parties) and consultation (by the parties actually involved). The Groningen-based rectors Van Gils and Engels also advocated an advisory body that would be able to transcend the mere ‘aggregate’ of universities’ visions. This led to creation of an advisory body and consultation committees for academic education and higher professional education. Under the leadership of the Nijmegen-based university administrator Van Lieshout the Executive Boards of the universities drew up a plan. The basic idea was that the position of academic teaching and research would be strengthened without threatening the autonomy or competitive positions of the universities.
Thanks in part to the HOAK paper, a sound quality-assurance system for universities arose in the 1980s. From this time on the quality of research and education was extensively monitored. In line with this approach, in 1985 the Academic Council was succeeded by the Association of Cooperating Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). In addition to the board in which all universities were represented, the association gained a bureau that was funded by the universities’ contributions. The association moved into premises on Leidseveer in Utrecht: a central location in the Netherlands with good access for its members, the university administrators. Some years later the word ‘Cooperating’ was dropped from the name, although the abbreviation ‘VSNU’ remained the same. Moreover in 2005 the bureau relocated from Utrecht to The Hague. Although this location is somewhat less central in geographical terms, the new base in The Hague, the Dutch administrative capital, raises the association’s profile for the political community and other administrative bodies. Now the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is a close neighbour, as are the Lower House of Parliament, the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, the former HBO Council. And so VSNU can fulfil its mission efficiently and effectively: to set out joint standpoints and to represent interests.
In the more than thirty years of its existence and under various names, the association has always ensured that the Dutch universities have a strong international reputation, a joint human resources policy with its own collective labour agreement, a quality assurance system which has been adopted by many other countries, and that academic education and research are inextricably linked to the Dutch knowledge economy.