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Foto: Daniël Rommens

“Universities cram everything into a single year, resulting in students becoming overloaded”

Jim Jansen,
12 oktober 2023 - 10:24
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Folia is exactly 75 years on October 13. Reason for a special, paper edition with the theme “student welfare”, which will be presented Thursday afternoon. Articles will also be put online in the coming days, starting with this interview with Robbert Dijkgraaf, who has been involved with Folia in various positions over the past twenty years.

At the end of the interview, Robbert Dijkgraaf says, “No – I certainly don’t intend to lower the bar for students. Certainly not. However, I do want to give them a longer run-up to prepare themselves. The first year is rough for a lot of students, because it’s all new to them and they don’t know their way around. Having some more time could be very helpful”. Dijkgraaf has submitted a proposal for the binding study advice to be amended to a maximum of 30 ECTS in the first year and 60 ECTS in the second year.

The response is typical of Robbert Dijkgraaf, who, in addition to being a scientist, is also a columnist, a member of the Board, a television personality, a writer and a painter. He is also the Minister of Education, Culture and Science in the now outgoing Rutte IV government.

Foto: Martijn Beekman (Rijksoverheid)

After his time at secondary school at the Erasmiaans Gymnasium in Rotterdam, he went on to study Physics at Utrecht University. Dijkgraaf obtained his doctorate at the same university and studied painting at the Rietveld Academy in the meantime. In 2005, he became the youngest university professor in the history of the UvA, won the Spinoza Prize – the highest scientific research award for top scientists in the Netherlands – and went on to become the President of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW), a society of outstanding scholars, in 2008. In 2012, he became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton. His appointment and inauguration as Minister of Education, Culture and Science in the Rutter IV government on 10 January 2022 came as a surprise to many. The same government resigned less than 18 months later.

During his eighteen-month tenure in The Hague, it became clear that Dijkgraaf was well suited to the ministerial role; he was able to achieve a great deal in this short period of time. As a minister, for example, he was able to free up ten million euros for science communication, shepherd the return of the basic grant through Parliament, make additional investments in higher education worth billions and slow down the Anglicisation of academic education – just to name a few achievements.

How do you feel about the Rutte IV government resigning?
“I think it’s a shame that things went the way they did. At the same time, I would also say that the general election is only a short while away, in November, and the formation process will most likely be a protracted affair. In the meantime, at the Ministry of Education, we will continue to carry on as best we can, to ensure the best education and research. Over the past 18 months, we launched a great many initiatives, made investments, and saw legislation through the Houses of Parliament. It is now up to the parties in the education sector themselves to demonstrate what these investments have the potential to yield. As an outgoing minister, I will continue to support and encourage that endeavour.”

“As a minister, I get to watch from the sidelines. We don’t have to have written the symphony ourselves to be able to enjoy it”

In that context – as a minister, did you ever miss the laboratories and particle accelerators?
“Naturally I got the itch every now and then. It”s immensely gratifying to ponder the major issues of the cosmos and to carry out research into those issues yourself. However, it is equally fascinating to be able to follow that process vicariously. As a minister, I get to watch from the sidelines. We don’t have to have written the symphony ourselves to be able to listen to it and enjoy it.”

As an outgoing minister, you have been speaking out on behalf of students with mental problems, which are increasingly becoming more common and persistent.
“The results of the Trimbos Institute study were published this summer, which showed high levels of stress and pressure to perform among young people. This has been the case for years and there is a clear upward trend, which was exacerbated by COVID. The worrying thing, however, is that it has not decreased in line with the absence of COVID.”

Why is that?
“There is currently a perception that we are responsible for our own success and therefore equally for our own failure. Young people are told that they have an unprecedented number of opportunities – and yet they have no idea how to make good choices. This suggests a degree of malleability, which is something they really suffer from.”

What can be done about it?
“When I speak to students these days, I hear two things. On the one hand, they have major concerns about issues such as climate change and housing. However, I also see and sense an energy within them aimed at changing the world and the education system, with more attention devoted to “the soft side” of education, as I like to call it. I don’t mean the credits or the programmes, but rather the culture, the way people interact and the personal support available. It’s about whether they feel good, safe and inclusive and how to deal with the challenges life throws at us. We have to master those life skills, which is something that applies to us all, whether in secondary vocational education or at university.”

What should the university’s role be in all this?
“This is an issue we speak about a great deal and which is an issue not only at the university but in society as a whole. The issue, in turn, is also impacted by social media. Our society has become a performance society, and believe me, that’s a phenomenon that doesn’t stop having an effect once you leave the lecture theatres of your educational institution. In fact, it might even get worse. The question is whether we, in education, can study or develop ways to cope with this phenomenon and learn skills to deal with it. A university should in actual fact be a decompression chamber that protects and arms students against all kinds of external forms of pressure. It would be good if the education sector were to become a pioneer in this domain and that its work was to gradually trickle back into the rest of society.”

Dijkgraaf and Folia – five snapshots

In 2006, Robbert Dijkgraaf made his debut on page 3 of the magazine as a columnist. His column alternated with those of Lisa Kuitert and Marcel Roes and he would write about his life as a university professor. A few years later, his column, which alternated with that of Louise Fresco, featured on the back page.

Member of the board
From 2007 until the time he left for Princeton in 2012, Dijkgraaf was a member of the board of Folia Civitatis. From 1948 to 2017, the foundation published a weekly publication, which was initially a newspaper and then became a magazine, which was distributed at all UvA locations every Wednesday. Since 2018, the medium is only available online. Although Dijkgraaf never chaired the board, the editorial team and the other members of the board greatly appreciated his tenure on the board.

Robbert Dijkgraaf Essay Prize
In June 2012, the entire board of the Folia Civitatis Foundation bade Dijkgraaf farewell when he became the director of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton. In gratitude for the services rendered, the Robbert Dijkgraaf Essay Prize was established, which is an annual competition in which members of staff, students and alumni are invited to write an essay on a specific theme. The twelfth winner of the prize will be announced on 21 November 2023.

Science Gala
On 26 November 2012, Folia introduced the Science Gala, which was held at the Stadsschouwburg in Amsterdam. The Gala is an evening event during which attendees are brought up to date on all the latest developments in the Amsterdam science community. Robbert Dijkgraaf has attended each and every edition of the Gala and believes it is “terrific, important, as well as appropriate that scientists should take the stage once a year at the most glamorous venue in the Netherlands in order to share the latest developments in their field”.

Our man at Princeton
On 5 June 2012, Het Parool published a special farewell supplement for Dijkgraaf put together by the editors of Folia Magazine and Het Parool. The late mayor Eberhard van der Laan lauded Dijkgraaf as “a tireless advocate of the independence of scientific research, of a playground in which researchers are not required to prove the value of their research to the outside world every five minutes”.

How do you intend to do that?
“Using a comprehensive approach in which students will be tackling the issue of mental well-being alongside the institutions across the board. When you go off to university, there are really two key issues. First, you need to perform well, as a result of which you obtain your credits and grow into a professional. On the other hand, there’s the Bildung, or general education, aspect, which involves you developing as a person with a range of social skills. Naturally I am intimately familiar with the university here in Amsterdam. At university, you make friends for example by following the same CREA course or by running into one another at the University Sports Centre. If you”re more politically engaged, you might join Asva and if you have literary aspirations you might join the faculty magazine. I believe these types of cross-programme activities are crucial and I regard them as the beginning of the solution. This helps young people become more resilient, due to the fact that they are forced to develop within each of these activities. These two facets – training into a professional and developing into a well-rounded person – are critical. We need work together to find a healthy balance for these two facets.”

That’s easier said than done.
“The dilemma of being a minister is that I want to encourage the best bottom-up behaviour from the top down. I want students to speak out, after which institutions start organising themselves. This cannot take place by decree of the Ministry or of the Board or the deans: it has to come from the lecture halls.”

A number of universities (of applied sciences) have launched a pilot programme in which the academic year is structured a little differently. Would that potentially be a solution?
“I would say in a smarter way; shorter and more effective in terms of organisation. Universities tend to shove everything into a single academic year, as a result of which students are practically overloaded. If we want to devote attention to mental welfare, institutions must take a careful look at whether all these things are actually needed. Space can be, and moreover needs to be, freed up and that time can be freed up for their well-being and life skills.”

The re-introduction of the basic grant is surely a feather in your cap in your ministerial career.
“We genuinely achieved all that in record time. We got the legislation past both Houses within a year and four months. I am incredibly pleased with that because it gives students more financial flexibility.”

Finally, Folia turns seventy-five years old this month.
“I’ve been a reader, a contributing columnist, I’ve sat on the board of the Folia Civitatis Foundation, I was interviewed countless times, when it was still the magazine – and I attend the Science Gala each year. These days it is a multimedia platform – entirely of its time.”


This is the first article from our special, paper anniversary edition celebrating Folia’s 75th anniversary. The magazine will be distributed on UvA campuses starting Monday.

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