Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
The Hon Dr. Jo Ritzen (Former Minister of Education, Culture, and Science of the Netherlands; President of Universiteit Maastricht; The Netherlands)

07.11.2009 - Interview conducted by Florence Collins

Dr. Jo Ritzen's fields of expertise span from physics, through economics - an ex Vice President of The World Bank - to politics. He is one of the longest-serving education ministers in the world, renowned for his reform of the Dutch student finance system. An advocate of the notion that making university more accessible is the key to a better world, Ritzen is current President of Universiteit Maastricht. During an interview conducted at the ‘World Without Walls’ congress we discussed the roles played by European universities today in preparing students for tomorrow's world, and the social responsibility institutions ought to assume in tailoring education to suit the individual.

You have campaigned extensively for improvements in the university education system in Europe. What is your motive for this? Why do you feel so strongly about university education?

Well the motive really is to make sure that education creates a better world in terms of having a better Europe, a Europe which takes responsibility - which in my view it still doesn't - and a Europe which is an interesting place to be. Europe isn’t only excellent for it's cappuccino, but now also for its thinking and for its ideas, for the arts, for sciences. Europe ought to be a place where things are invented, where its fun to sit on a terrace and not just to sip cappuccino but also to think about things.

How do you think that academic institutions can encourage this?

I think first they should take a step back and really take responsibility for themselves. When you look at European history, you can consider it in three parts: the medieval, then the period from after the middle-ages to around 1950, then the period after 1950. During all of these periods European universities were never actually very awake, they just continued along the road they had been taking without thinking about the role they should play. They never took a step back and said, “Why are we here? Why should we be doing this? Why should we be recruiting students? What should we be offering the students we recruit?”

In the UK the government made a target of getting 50% of students to continue into higher education. Do you think this is a good idea or is there a large percentage of the population who are not necessarily apt for university?

Well no, I believe that everybody should be able to go to university in the end - Korea has 80% participation. There should be a diversified system though. It should be understood that not all university graduates will become leaders, or maybe they will in a special way, in the sense of taking responsibility. It is by taking responsibility, taking a step back, that we can go about making the world a better place. Most universities don't know why they are there. They think they are doing a good job, which is true, but not as good a job as they could do if they were to ask themselves: ‘What does this student want to do? What to they want to be and how can we help get student him to that place?’ I would say decision-making should be conducted within an analytical framework. We need to have a clear awareness about why we are doing things, and, at the same time, make sure that we refer to some ethical constraints in terms of what we do being good for the future of the children, good for the environment, good for income distribution worldwide and so on. I’m not referring to some sort of detailed and elaborated plan, but awareness in a more general fashion, that should be the framework in which universities put themselves.

I think it's true as well, that some universities exist without any social responsibility, and rather as money--making institutions. Would you agree with this?

Yes, this can be true. This is where most European universities are put under a lot of pressure, but still some get around it. I don’t think that university education has to be a Baron Munchausen feat.  It really is a lot simpler than that. Universities just have to take a step-back and say, why are we here? What should we contribute? So if we know that student A wants to work in an international environment, what is needed in this prospect? Students want to know how other people think, they would like contacts to help them build-up their notion of inter-cultural relationships. Of course they want to learn a subject, bu they also want experience of team-work because it's everywhere nowadays, so universities need to dedicate time to this. It's important in general to have these ideas in mind, and then to implement them within the university.


Dr. Ritzen, thank you so much for your time.