20 februari 2017 • HOP, by Matthijs van Schie
PhD candidate: ‘Give universities of applied sciences time and funding for research’
When universities of applied sciences start conducting more research, they will do a better job of teaching their students. This is what Kees van Gageldonk said today in defending his dissertation about research and research groups at universities of applied sciences.
In the Netherlands, the difference between universities of applied sciences and universities has been clear for decades: at the former, students work toward entering professional practice; at the latter, greater preference is given to a broad-based education and scholarly research.
In 2001, universities of applied sciences appointed heads of research groups that would conduct applied research for the purpose of improving their quality of education. They would be a kind of ‘professor’ but then at a university of applied science. Today, there are more than 600 of them.
This development was the subject of research that Kees van Gageldonk conducted at Leiden University in recent years. On 14 February, he received his PhD after defending his dissertation entitled ‘Op zoek naar onderzoek: De totstandkoming van de onderzoeksfunctie in het hoger beroepsonderwijs’ (In search of research: the development of the function of research at universities of applied sciences). What’s going on with these research groups now, and what does their future look like?
What is the function of research groups?
‘In 2001 it was decided that heads of research groups at universities of applied sciences would have four key tasks: conducting applied research, improving the teaching skills of lecturers, contributing to the curriculums, and providing more knowledge to benefit the economy and society. This was intended to promote a research culture at universities of applied sciences.’
Have universities of applied sciences been improved by the presence of heads of research groups?
‘Universities of applied sciences may now be more focused on research, but I don’t know whether this affects the general student population to any great degree. You’d have to ask an educational expert about this. I’m a historian so I’ve looked at this primarily as a development over time.’
Should the political arena devote more attention to the development of research at universities of applied sciences?
‘Because many universities of applied sciences don’t have many heads of research groups, there are still a lot of gains to be made here. I would thus welcome having these institutions receive more funding, but not a hundred million all at once. This would be overwhelming.’
‘More money doesn’t necessarily improve quality. Give universities of applied sciences time to develop themselves in this area and to demonstrate how meaningful this is. If heads of research groups actually do this, they should also eventually receive the right to award the PhD title just as professors at universities do.’
How can universities of applied sciences contribute to scholarly research? Isn’t this reserved for universities?
‘OK, universities are the institutions primarily responsible for conducting research while universities of applied sciences should demonstrate their contribution to the field of professional practice. Fundamental research is the preserve of the university; there’s no question about that. Yet collaboration between universities of applied sciences and universities can often be a great idea.’
‘The field of art is a good example of this. In other countries, art academies often offer university degrees; here, however, art students can only be awarded ‘HBO degrees’. I remember a research project once in which the Delft University of Technology and The Royal Academy of Art The Hague collaborated on a project involving virtual reality; the Delft students were more involved with the underlying technology, while the art students worked on the actual images. Another good example of this kind of cooperation is in the field of health care.’
Might these activities start blurring the distinction between university of applied sciences and university education?
‘In the Netherlands, both the government and the universities want to keep a large gap between these two forms of higher education. In many other countries, however, this is viewed very differently.’
‘People in other countries are often surprised to see that the distinction between universities of applied sciences and universities here is so black and white. Actually, it would be better not to sustain this artificially since a closing of the gap between fundamental and applied research would benefit both universities of applied sciences and universities.’
Will this binary system in the Netherlands disappear in the near future?
‘I don’t think it will happen all that soon. The difference is well established, and universities of applied sciences receive far less funding for research than universities. So these tracks will continue to exist as separate entities for the time being. If the universities of applied sciences contribute systematically and seriously to research, however, the binary system will eventually fade out on its own. Until then, research at universities of applied sciences will have to develop at its own pace.’
Kees van Gageldonk received his master’s degree in history in 1971. As secretary of the Stichting Kennisontwikkeling (Foundation for Knowledge Development), he was closely involved in the development of the research teams and groups at universities of applied sciences.