When you ask scientists, people in support services, and students to describe their experiences with the vice president, they often use the words ‘empathic,’ ‘constructively critical,’ ‘humorous,’ ‘resourceful,’ ‘invaluable link’ and ‘reliable.’ Not a bad list. Perhaps the heartfelt tribute by student group Groep-één during his last University Council meeting was a telling sign. During the previous years, he had answered every possible question relating to his broad field of activities. Questions he would patiently answer or sometimes skillfully avoid, but always with the promise that he would come back to them later. And he always did. The students expressed their appreciation for many years of cooperation by presenting him with an excellent bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and wine glasses. Engraved on the glasses was a checkbox with next to it the name of their preferred candidate: Mr. Jo van Ham.
Van Ham was no stranger to the world of academia when he took up his position as the third member of the Executive Board in October 2008. Over thirty years, he held several positions at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW), the last one as acting Deputy Director-General of Higher and Vocational Education, Science and Emancipation. “In Eindhoven I had the opportunity to work in the everyday practice at a university. The network I had built over the last thirty years was greatly appreciated.”
His work in The Hague had been a source of much pleasure as well. “The frantic pace of politics, the cabinet meeting, the House of Representatives, you are constantly working hard to get things done for your minister. But once I started here in Eindhoven, I began to realize that The Hague is not unlike a bell jar where you feel mighty important. But it is often a case of thinking in problems instead of solutions. At TU/e, I met ambitious people with a clear plan in mind and a desire for autonomy and independence. I found a ‘can-do’ attitude in the Brainport region.”
In cooperation with a steering group, Van Ham soon started to work on the development of the strategic policy for the coming years that would eventually lead to such projects as Strategic Areas Health, Smart Mobility, and Energy. “When I started at TU/e, I felt a clear vision was lacking, a story. In which direction do we want to take our university, what will be our mission? We held several policy discussions, including one on growth during which university professor Maarten Steinbuch said to be in favor of doubling our student intake. Bert Meijer, also a university professor, proposed, on the other hand, to increase the quality of education. The discussion provided us with many issues to work with in the years ahead.”
Two years after Van Ham took up his position, Dutch universities were confronted with the loss of a large sum the government had always invested in research, the so-called Structure Enhancing Fund (FES) coming out of natural gas revenues. Up to that point, the universities had been able to make considerable investments in research and innovation with that money. “To be clear up front: the university is in excellent financial health right now,” Van Ham says with a smile, “but we are not a wealthy university, we can’t just add buildings to our campus financed out of our own private capital. We always need support from banks for large building or renovation projects.”
When the FES funding stopped in 2010, TU/e was financing 250 PhD students with it. “The loss of those resources had an enormous impact and occurred at a time when we were making extra cutbacks. Between twelve and fifteen million euros. When we made these university-wide cuts, we also came up with the so-called Impuls agreement. This was possible because we had cut the budget by a bit too much. The Impuls agreement meant: we allocated funding to a faculty for one PhD student and businesses would add another. Two for the price of one. In cooperation with Philips and other business partners this resulted in seventy extra PhD students.”
Van Ham sees it as a kind of reversal of what the university had done for businesses in the Brainport region at the start of the crisis in 2008-2009. “The TU/e board really lobbied for the knowledge workers regulation in The Hague at the time. Employees who were in danger of becoming redundant became eligible for temporary employment at TU/e with government support. It goes to show that much is possible in this region, although it is never based on charity alone. You must be realistic, businesses have much to gain form the Impuls agreement as well.”
Van Ham has witnessed how business companies in the Brainport region have made major investments in research and development (R&D) in the last few years. “Among companies in the Netherlands, the percentage of R&D funding is highest in the Brainport region.” He believes TU/e, with its relatively low budget, cannot keep up. “For instance, if ASML were to come to us with the question whether we would like to participate in an extensive research program, I should say no purely on financial grounds. But eventually we would say yes naturally, in the interest of our scientific research.”
The matching pressure at TU/e is considerable according to Van Ham, “but in addition, we experience a strong growth in the field of our education as well. The substantial inflow of first-year students during recent years generates more government funding in the long term, but this does not supply to research. And so, we have to find external means for that. At this point, we’re trying to take some of the pressure off and to maintain the quality of education by implementing fixed quotas.”
Van Ham says the matter is being discussed with the cabinet, “but extra means for research at technical universities is obviously a politically sensitive issue. So, in addition to extra state funding, money will also have to come from businesses. We are already very active in the field of public-private cooperation, and you see a similar development occurring in many places abroad as well.”
Van Ham is all too aware that this is an area of tension. “We must not become an implementation or research facility for the industry. And so we always say: we hire the researcher and decide whether someone is a good scientist or not. That person should be able to do his or her work autonomously and freely. If that is possible in cooperation with the business industry, then fine, but it has to be with complete respect for academic values.”
Obviously, what is most visible to outsiders is the enormous transformation of the campus site during the last ten years. “We have made our campus ‘greener’ and more attractive to both students and staff,” says a visibly proud vice president. “All of our new buildings – MetaForum, Flux and Atlas – have many study and workplaces, and MetaForum’s large indoor market hall is the perfect location for every possible event, from barbecue to MomenTUm, our graduation day.”
Van Ham sees these projects distinctly as the footprint he will leave behind after March 21. “The original plan, ‘Campus 2020,’ which encompasses four major projects, basically isn’t that complicated, but when you consider the many medium and small sized projects that we have realized intermediately, such as Ceres and Matrix, then it’s quite something.”
After the construction of Flux had already begun, Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics came to me with the request for extra floors
He is also proud that the university doesn’t spend more than fourteen percent of the annual budget on housing costs. “We laid down this standard here at my office ourselves. It can sometimes be an obstacle as well, but it’s positive that we have always discussed this matter on the Board and that we can set and monitor limits together. Spending too much money on buildings can cause major problems.”
He uses an anecdote to illustrate how difficult it can sometimes be not to cross the limits of housing expenditure. “After the construction of Flux had already begun, both faculties, Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics, came to me with the request for extra floors, based on their increasing student inflow. We said no, but they keep asking even today.”
Van Ham believes recruitment of top talent in science is the most important challenge for TU/e in the future. “We will have to become actively involved in the battle for young, ambitious scientists. Many of our scientists are approaching retirement, which will lead to an outflow in the coming years. This matter has the special attention of rector magnificus Frank Baaijens. I’m partly optimistic; we are an attractive university with fantastic laboratories, located in an active, promising region. This is a good place to live as well. However, international competition, in Europe and worldwide, is fierce, even more so than nationally.”
Therefore, Van Ham believes it is important that the Netherlands invest more in research and innovation. “That really needs to change. I understand that investments are needed in other areas as well, such as healthcare and infrastructure, but the cabinet needs to set a clear agenda for research and innovation. If you do not invest in these areas, you don’t see the effects until five years later, so no one thinks there is a problem. There is a lack of courage to make serious investments. The small steps that are being taken are not enough.”
Van Ham points to Germany, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, where the necessary investments are being made. Or France, where president Macron has set an agenda for the future. “If this doesn’t change, we will really lag behind. I’m pessimistic about that. Hoping for more funding from Europe is fine, but the majority of our budget still comes from public funds in the Netherlands.”
What also bothers Van Ham is the current allocation of research budgets. “NWO should give a substantial part of their means directly to the universities again. All those procedures for subsidy and research grant applications are very time consuming for scientists, time they would otherwise have used for research. Without even taking into account the control measures they have to deal with. That really shouldn’t take up more than ten percent of their time. Preferably much less.”
His farewell to the university does not make Van Ham feel nostalgic. “It feels at bit like the last three weeks before summer holiday. You’re looking forward to it.” He will spend the coming months strengthening the cooperation with Utrecht University, the University Medical Center Utrecht and Wageningen University. After his retirement, Van Ham will remain active on several TU/e-related supervisory boards.
The festive farewell of Jo van Ham will take place on Thursday, March 21, combined with the official reopening of Atlas, the renovated former Hoofdgebouw.