‘Growth not possible without upfront funding’

According to an internal think tank more external influx of master's students, EngD trainees and PhD students is a key factor in fulfilling the commitment of TU/e to double the number of students in 2030. Looking at how the high tech industry in Brainport could get more involved in educating students is also on the agenda and the possibility to offer education on other campuses in the region. But everything stands or falls with the willingness of The Hague to invest in it.

photo Brigit Span

In an interview that appeared in the Strategy Update that was sent by mail to employees on last Thursday, Executive Board President Robert-Jan Smits and Professor Maarten Steinbuch talked about what is necessary to achieve a ‘leap of scale’. Steinbuch is leading the think tank that has done research on this topic for the past months.

Such a leap of scale is necessary because “the Brainport region is fast becoming the engine of the Dutch economy,” say Steinbuch and Smits. In the future a huge number of high qualified jobs need to be filled and TU/e is a key player as supplier of talent in this region. Steinbuch says that it must lead “to a university that feels small but is big."

Steinbuch: "Within twenty years' time our Brainport region will be the center of gravity for the industry in the Netherlands. It is more than just ASML, it is also about the manufacturing industry that provides unique services and products with smart software for the whole world. For instance, Philips, FEI, VDL, NXP, DAF and Prodrive." Some people fear that the uniqueness of TU/e will disappear with such a leap of scale. It's something that doesn't need to happen, says Smits. “You can grow and still keep the atmosphere and a sense of community."

Think tank

The Executive Board created the think tank (see the box below for the participants) with the following task: 'Assume a situation in 2030 in which we have doubled the outflow of students, we have responded more than ever to the demand from the region and have increased the stay rate of graduates in Brainport. What needs to be done to achieve these goals?' Steinbuch says that the think tank has been looking at the problems that can arise and at the possible solutions.

He thinks that really big steps can be made in the external influx of master's students, EngD trainees and PhD students. Steinbuch: “Preferably from the Netherlands, but because that intake is currently declining, we are also looking inside and outside the European Economic Area.” With the two-year EngD post-master programs for technological designers, offered in a 4TU context, gains can be made according to Steinbuch. “We now have 250 trainees in these programs; we could do with 1,000 or 2,000. The puzzle is how to get there."

Up-front funding

More scientific staff is needed to let the master's programs grow. Money is essential for that. Steinbuch: "In order to handle more students, the organization must first grow. To do so, we need funding. The think tank has coined the creative term up-front funding. Normally, as a university, you only get money when a student graduates. First you scale up, then more funding comes in from the government, which generates more scope to hire people."

Steinbuch and Smits want to reverse this. “First we need more scientific staff, then more facilities and buildings and support services, and only then do we want to grow the student numbers. This way we want to relieve the staff and grow gradually, so that it happens in the right proportions. This will also allow the research component to grow at the same rate and enable us to educate and deliver more PhD students. We are also looking at how the high-tech industry in Brainport can be more involved in the training of master's students. In particular, there are many opportunities in this regard for internships, guest lecturers and graduation supervision. This could relieve the workload within TU/e considerably."

Steinbuch says that there also have been talks with ASML and that this company indicated a need for professionals in optics and mechatronics. “However, you don't always get clear answers when you put the question to the industry: 'we want to grow, let us know where'. We now want to draw up our own basic outline first and present it to companies and ask them for input."

On-campus university

Board President Smits once again emphasized that TU/e will remain an on-campus university. ”So we will not absorb the growth by teaching online. The question is whether our campus offers enough space for the growth, or whether there are other interesting locations to teach at." Steinbuch: "If we expand so enormously, we will need new buildings." Steinbuch cites as examples Gemini, which houses Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering, and Flux, which houses Electrical Engineering and Applied Physics.

The possible use of other campuses in the region is not yet discussed by the think tank. But according to Steinbuch “it’s interesting to see what we can do for each other in this respect. The campuses are very strong if you can combine them with knowledge institutions. We're open-minded and hope to be able to collect ideas from our community for that as well."

To be able to talk about these plans with the TU/e community, meetings will be organized. In a month and a half, the Executive Board will talk about the plans with the deans and heads of department. Smits: “There will also be working groups for sub-areas such as housing and financing. We find it important for everyone to be able to contribute ideas. Although we got it started, we don't want to work out the details top-down; everyone is entitled to have their say."

About the willingness of the Dutch Cabinet to cooperate with these plans Smits says: “The Brainport region is the only area mentioned in the coalition agreement. In mid-September, ministers will be meeting to discuss this again. We still hope that by the end of this year there will be more clarity about the money needed for growth. If there is no up-front funding, we cannot start up tenders for new buildings, nor start recruiting additional staff."

According to Smits housing is, besides money, the biggest challenge. "The dire situation around housing for students is high on everyone's agenda, including The Hague. More housing is needed, but we cannot solve that as a university. The region has to do that."

Look here for the entire interview.

The think tank that Maarten Steinbuch is leading consists of Mark van den Brand (Mathematics & Computer Science), Patricia Dankers (Biomedical Engineering), Marion Matters (Electrical Engineering), Patrick Groothuis (Education & Student Affairs), Renee Westenbrink (General Affairs) en Xavier Theunissen (support).

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