What is the alliance between TU/e, WUR, UU and UMC Utrecht supposed to yield?

The official launch, in the presence of minister of education Ingrid van Engelshoven, of the alliance between TU/e, Utrecht University, Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and University Medical Center Utrecht was supposed to take place in music complex Tivoli yesterday afternoon. It was cancelled due to the coronavirus, and the four institutions are now looking for a new date. But what were they planning to present?

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The launch meeting was cancelled yesterday due to the coronavirus crisis, and a new date will now need to be found. The four partner institutions say that the initiatives of the joint work groups will continue as planned. The collaboration operates under the slogan ‘Challenging Future Generations,’ for which a promotional film was made last year already. At the time, the four institutions declared that they would gladly assign that challenge to their young researchers and students, and that they wanted them to cooperate across different disciplines.

Two issues occupy a central position in the collaboration: the challenges in education and research during the next ten to fifteen years, and the question of how the four institutions can contribute to societal transitions by merging and exchanging education, research and valorization. Together, the institutions will earmark 6 million euros each in the next four years, which amounts to a total sum of 24 million.

Chance of success

In anticipation of the launch meeting, Utrecht University’s independent news site DUB placed an article online detailing the collaboration and its chances of success. The article also looked back on the collaboration between TU/e, Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht, which started in 2011.

It’s almost ten years later now, and the conclusion can be drawn that the alliance never really took off. Yes, there were partnered projects in the field of biomedical equipment and catalyzation of fuels. Sure, there’s a multidisciplinary Master’s program with students from both Eindhoven and Utrecht. And there was an annual meeting in which top scientists gave talks, and an annual research prize was awarded. Still, the collaboration never had the broad support the boards wanted it to have.

The university has more partners it works with, and there wasn’t a sense that this alliance was anything special. There was no enthusiastic support. Some attempts were made to intensify the collaboration, by – among other things – pumping more money into the project. In 2017, the decision was made to put 10 million euros into a new fund in the field of regenerative medicine, medical image processing, porous materials, and sustainable energy, writes DUB.

“Perhaps we were a little too far ahead of our time,” says Bert van der Zwaan, who, as former rector, was very close to the process at the time. “There wasn’t as much sense of urgency as there is now. And everything still felt rather vague. But we definitely did lay the needed foundations for the collaboration that we’re now building on.”


Utrecht University’s current rector Henk Kummeling does see some differences between the new approach and the old one. “The way the alliance has been so far, it was mostly about additional money you could submit requests for. There was a lot of interest in that – so much so, that some people were disappointed. And then annoyed. That’s not beneficial to a collaboration like this. This time, we reasoned the other way around. We approached people and urged them to get started and to present proposals. The Young Academies of all four institutions, for instance, got together, and we put an educational group to work to present a program. These things seem to be paying off.”

Kummeling emphasizes that the alliance does not have the goal of a merger between the universities. And that it should in no way happen at the expense of the university’s other partnerships. “But we selected four themes in which we think the alliance could really make a difference. We’ve looked the expertise that’s already there. The themes are nutrition, energy, health, and circular economy. The task, now, is to get to work on these themes in particular.”

The Young Academies of the four institutions have now met twice to search together for projects that could be developed.


Education, too, will have an important role in the collaboration. For that reason, a special educational project already started earlier this year: challenge-based education. The further development and implementation of this way of learning is high on TU/e’s list of priorities as well.

The idea is that a group of students from different disciplines and universities work on a real-life issue. The program Food for Health and Safety is one of the projects that started earlier this year. The assignment came from the Ministry of Defense, which wants to know how it can best provide its deployed troops with food. In interdisciplinary teams, the students work on questions like: how do you ensure the troops eat nutritious meals with sufficient calories? How do you transport food to the army base? How do you present the meals?

But, as said before, it is now a question of waiting until the coronavirus has been contained and a new data has been set for the signing of the alliance.

Alliance coordinator from Utrecht

Last week, the board of the alliance between the four institutions announced that Esther Stiekema (1968) will be appointed to the position of Alliance Coordinator as of 1 May. She is director of the Academic Affairs Office at Utrecht University and will support the boards with the implementation of the common agenda, which was laid down in the collaboration agreement that was supposed to be signed yesterday. During the next four years, her focus will be on initiating collaboration between groups, and taking good ideas further.

Naturally, she is much more familiar with UU and UMC Utrecht than with WUR and TU/e. Stiekema: “That’s were I worked during the past eleven years. But I was involved with the collaboration between TU/e, UU and UMC Utrecht since 2011, and that’s how I got to know TU/e a little bit. In the past year, I was involved with a group of colleagues from all four partners that’s thinking about a common Master’s program. I want to set up an introduction program in order to get to know all partners, and I plan to work at all of the locations on a regular basis.”

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