Thursday, 3 December 2015

Tour Reflections: David Law


Now in this series of reflections by members of the team, David Law gives his observations...

Since we returned to the UK I have been thinking about the people we met and the places we visited.
Higher Education in the Netherlands is much more regulated by the state than in the UK, and this appears to be so also in the Flemish area of Belgium (judging from the one institution we visited there).  But this does not seem to stifle initiative.  Indeed TU Delft must be one of the most innovative universities I have ever had the pleasure to visit, whether in the UK or overseas.

What struck me, in particular, about TU Delft was the sense of adventure and common purpose.  The whole team found our meeting with Anka Mulder to be inspirational.  Since April 2013 she has been the Vice-President for Education and Operations at TU Delft.  Anka was promoted internally to this post, in a technical university and with no STEM background.  She is a champion for internationalisation and accessibility of education.

We asked her about the development strategy at TUD and her reply was highly revealing.  “We do not have a strategy for growth.  We have a strategy for quality.”  If you achieve excellence the university has strength and will grow.

After the tour concluded, I was able to find more about Anka Mulder.  She studied History at the University of Groningen where she later lectured in International Relations. In 1996 she took up a post as head of department at the ROI (the Dutch Institute for Public Administration that provides civil service training).  At TUD Anka served, from 2004, for nine years as Director of Education and Student Affairs.  She has always been an energetic supporter of open learning (including MOOCs).  


Anka Mulder’s philosophy is to work within networks to enable the excellence of the education at TUD to reach as many people as possible. “We can’t do that on our campus [because of the obvious limitations] so we use MOOCs.”  Now TU Delft has 75,000 participants registered for its MOOCs.
Reputational gains are a powerful motivation for this development. TU Delft has joined a network of about 30 top universities and schools from all over the world (the edX initiative that includes Harvard).  “This means that the degrees of our students increase in value.” 

This has not been problem-free!  The Executive Board and, in general, the professional staff were really supportive right from the start (eight years ago).  “As for the faculty, some people were immediately enthusiastic about the possibilities of open and online initiatives. But for other staff it took some time.”

TUD started with those who were enthusiastic, and if people were not interested …?  “Well, that was fine with us. What we see now is that the interest in what we do online is growing rapidly.”  But there are still challenges to overcome.

“My University is a warm supporter of openness. However, at the same time, we have to make ends meet. We have to find a business model for online and open Education.  Things cost money. This is a big challenge. What we can’t do is to have our registered students on campus pay more to make it possible for all other students, from around the world, to get a higher education for free. We have to find a good business model.”

Open and online education will clearly have a massive impact on higher education, although it is impossible to know what these effects will in the future.  TU Delft is a university that wants to be at the forefront of change.

Anka Mulder says that the University has to develop a three-year strategy for online education every six months!  “This world is changing so fast. … Every six months we have to speed up otherwise we are not going fast enough.” And, of course, it is all in English!

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