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Han van der Maas | Not a boring semester

Han van der Maas,
7 juli 2023 - 09:19
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This last semester was one of many disruptions, Han van der Maas noted. Another occupation, the case of Laurens Buijs, the rise of artificial intelligence: there was certainly a lot going on. But there’s no need for worry. ‘It doesn’t get much worse than the climate crisis or a megalomaniacal madman in Moscow who can destroy the world with the push of a button.’

The last semester of this academic year saw a number of notable disruptions. One was the occupation of the ABC building on the Roeterseilandcampus. This did not particularly annoy me; sometimes staying at home is very effective. Extreme radicalization on the right is much more dangerous than on the left, but I do find leftist simplism more painful to watch.
Another disturbance of minor importance is the Laurens Buijs case. While I share some of his concerns, it is hard to feel any sympathy for this supposed vaccine expert (“The parallels to Nazi Germany, the GDR and Apartheid are just obvious, aren’t they?”) and new age visionary (“not David Icke, but his ‘rational’ critics will be remembered in the long run as the lunatics”). But he did a nice job of keeping our administrators off the streets for a while.
Much more serious are our problems in parliament, where the conservative right has targeted not only asylum seekers but now also foreign students and researchers. The proposal that two-thirds of undergraduate courses should be taught in Dutch will lead to a huge decline in students, massive reorganizations and loss of top research. These reorganizations will be extremely costly, time-consuming and disruptive. The influx into the labor market will take a serious hit. The Netherlands has a structural labor shortage, which will only increase due to an aging population and our asylum policy.
Dutch universities are currently very successful. Our education and research are of international excellence, as evidenced by all kinds of rankings. Dutch researchers acquire an unlikely number of European research grants. European students cost us money but Europe also gives us a lot.

Caption: Countries with most ERC grants awarded per 1,000 FTE researchers, 2021 Subscript: Number of ERC grantee per 1000 fte researchers

We owe this success in large part to our choice of English as the scientific language. In most fields of science, Dutch-language journals and textbooks disappeared decades ago. Of course, this does not apply to research that specifically concerns Dutch society or culture. But for most sciences, the scientific language of instruction is English.


On the ranking of countries that master English as a second language, the Netherlands is now proudly at the top. Thanks to its choice of English, especially since Brexit, the Netherlands is developing into a typical “educational” hub. This type of hub, think Boston, Cambridge-Oxford, and Singapore, is proving to be a huge driver of economic and cultural progress. For the future of small Holland, bilingualism is essential.
But what about the drawbacks? There is a housing shortage, but to blame this crisis on students is a bit lame. Then do something about the nitrogen crisis. The Netherlands benefits more from importing students than from exporting meat.
Lecturers are busy, some courses are overcrowded. But universities are proving to be able to scale up quickly in practice, and this government has made a lot of extra resources available. With a better numerus fixus regulation, universities can manage the intake just fine. Such a fixus can also prevent the possible displacement of Dutch students.


It is true that some of the students leave the Netherlands again, but a good portion do stay. Also, the Dutch economy benefits from international collaborations that follow from Dutch residency.
Then there is the fear that Dutch students do not process as deeply the material on quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory, or brain research. The quality of our graduate students really does not undercut that of French students, for example. Indeed, the English of our teachers is not perfect but there is no need to be. Scientific English has many accents and not-perfect English suffices when explaining calculus or geography, for example.

But even this vandalistic twitch of the Christian right will pass

But even this vandalistic twitch of the Christian right will pass. I have fitted a regression line to the number of seats of the Christian parties combined and in 2048 they are at zero. We’ll survive that. Some left-wing second chamber members unfortunately saw fit to ride their output-funding hobbyhorse again and hooked up with Omtzigt. But since the aftermath of the 2015 Maagdenhuis occupation, an output funding hobbyhorse taboo has been in place. Only those who propose a somewhat elaborate alternative are allowed back on horseback.
Then the biggest disruption, the large language models and in particular ChatGPT. This is really going to turn our education on its head. My work is estimated to be a third faster and better thanks to tools like Wolfram Alpha, ChatGPT and Deepl write. I write the most beautiful letters of recommendation in one minute, reject, as editor, articles without offending anyone anymore and program in the most alien languages. My students and PhD students also submit neatly written papers.
Whereas in recent years I was mainly an ‘editorial assistant’, now we are talking about content again. All the fuss about language is suddenly obsolete. I don't forbid students anything, even encourage them to use ChatGPT, but I do set the bar much higher. From a bachelor student I expect a top-notch essay or a thorough simulation study, from a master's student a publishable article, and from an AiO a scientific breakthrough. I see this as the only option and actually a very good one. With AI we are much smarter and that is much needed.


So I am not pessimistic or anxious about this disruption either. It doesn’t get much worse than the climate crisis or a megalomaniacal madman in Moscow who can destroy the world with the push of a button. The idea that AI is going to take over the world may go into Ickes and Buijs reptile house.


Han van der Maas is full professor of psychological methods.

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