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Seeking balance in a changing world and university

The world around us is changing. What does that mean for the future of Europe, on this turbulent world stage? And what does it mean for our teaching, and for the expectations that Leiden University has of its students? These were the key questions during the opening of the 2018-2019 academic year on Monday 3 September.

The Pieterskerk in Leiden was filled with professors and guests, as well as with large numbers of students: first-years from the Augustinus and Quintus student associations, and the many student members of committees of study and student associations. In line with tradition, they entered the church in procession, marking the start of the ceremony.

The students make their appearance in the Pieterskerk.
The students make their appearance in the Pieterskerk.

Generation gap?

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer could only admit wholeheartedly that his generation is not leaving the world in the best possible state for the next generation. The Professor of  International Relations and Practice of Diplomacy and former Secretary-General of NATO made this admission in a dialogue with Imane Maghrani, Leiden alumna of World Politics and Global Justice. She was a former student assistant of De Hoop Scheffer and is now Education Executive at the Prince’s Trust in London. A baby boomer opposite a millennial, talking about the issue of the European Community. ‘Millennials supposedly avoid hard work, they are spoiled and have no interest in politics,’ Maghrani said. She explained that the new generation feels the enormous pressure of all the problems facing it. But it’s not true that they are not politically engaged. It’s more that millennials do not identify with traditional politics in the hands of 45-year-old men in grey suits. ‘ The new generation is involved in politics and social issues on a large scale, but uses the new media to communicate their interest.’

‘Babyboomer’ Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and ‘millennial’ Imane Maghrani in dialogue.
‘Babyboomer’ Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and ‘millennial’ Imane Maghrani in dialogue.

Talk to one another

De Hoop Scheffer compared the EU to a comfortable armchair in which you can relax without needing to pay it much attention. That was a gross underestimation, he now says. ‘We have taken the EU too much for granted. As a consequence, we are now facing major problems such as migration and climate change, and our norms and values relating to human rights, democracy and the constitutional state are under pressure.  Not only because major powers like China, Russia and unfortunately now the US as well are less attached to it, but also powers outside the EU are taking the same attitude. Think of Hungarian President Orbán, for example. ‘And, yes, it’s true, we have done too little to protect the EU. Successive generations do see one another, but they need to talk to one another more!’

Skills training

The world around us is changing. ‘The students who are now studying here will at some point in the future make a contribution to this changing world,’ said Vice-Rector Hester Bijl. This places a number of challenges at the door of education. ‘If you apply for a degree programme today, it’s more about what you can do, rather than what you know.’ To meet the challenges of the future, Leiden students receive an excellent training in important skills: critical reading, conducting independent research, problem-solving abilities, and also 21st-century skills.  ‘Although, I have to say, I have the idea that, as far as digital skills are concerned, our students can sometimes teach us more than we can teach them!’  Bijl commented, smiling ruefully.

Vice-Rector Hester Bijl addressing the audience, in particular the students.
Vice-Rector Hester Bijl addressing the audience, in particular the students.

Support for study stress

Bijl encouraged students to continue to read enough books,  as well as devoting time to their smartphones. And she also advised them, throughout their student time, to explore and orient themselves towards the job market. ‘Yes, we do ask a lot of you,’ Bijl addressed the students directly. ‘And we are also very aware of the high stress you are under.’ She drew the students’ attention to the support structure that is in place: psychological counsellors, the many training courses and workshops, and the recently established Student Wellbeing Task Force. ‘Any of you could come up against a setback at any point in time. But, ultimately, each of you will also find your own way, and, on a lovely day sometime in the future, each of you will proudly sign that degree certificate you have worked so hard for,’ Bijl reassured them.

LUS Teaching Prize

Then it was time for Ghislaine Voogd, chair of the Leiden University Student Platform, to announce the winner of the LUS Teaching Prize. The three nominees, public administration specialist Maarja Beerkens, mathematician Robbert-Jan Kooman and cell biologist Roeland Dirks were present in the church.  Although that was not as self-evident as one might have thought, Voogd explained: ‘They thought that our email was spam. Next year, maybe we shouldn’t start the mail with: “Congratulations! You have the chance of winning 25,000 euros!”’ After mentioning some of the qualities praised by their students, she announced Roeland Dirks as the winner of the LUS Teaching Prize. He will receive 25,000 euros and membership of the Leiden Teachers’ Academy. Apart from his very inspiring lectures, the surprised but very happy Dirks also owed his win to his ideas about what he would do with the prize money: he would like to set up a digital practical platform for his students. Voogd praised his proposal as a highly efficient, cost-saving and environmentally friendly idea. Dirks was very pleasantly surprised to be the winner. ‘I would like to thank my students for this honour, and I can assure them that, having won this prestigious honour, I won’t now be resting on my laurels, but will continue to work to deliver better teaching.’  

Roeland Dirks receiving the LUS Teaching Prize from Ghislaine Voogd, chair of the Leiden University Student Platform.
Roeland Dirks receiving the LUS Teaching Prize from Ghislaine Voogd, chair of the Leiden University Student Platform.

Cath Prize for youth project about the universe

Astronomer Pedro Russo was awarded the K.J. Cath Prize, consisting of a certificate and a financial prize of 2,500 euros. Russo works at both the Leiden Observatory and the department of Science Communication at the Faculty of Science. He received the prize for the inspiring way in which he brings science to a broad public. One particular way he does this is as project manager of Universe Awareness, a worldwide education programme for children. This programme, that is coordinated by the Leiden Observatory, inspires children by showing them the wonders of the universe, thus arousing their interest in science and technology. The  Universe Awareness lessons also promote global citizenship and tolerance. The programme is an initiative of Leiden Professor of Astronomy George Miley. ‘Getting children interested in science subjects isn’t just a little extra: it’s an absolute necessity,’ according to Russo. ‘And this prize shows how true that is.’ The Universe Awareness programme is an initiative of Leiden Professor of Astronomy  George Miley. Russo, who was delighted to receive the prize, stressed that the award should be regarded as a team performance.

This year’s K.J. Cath Prize was awarded to Pedro Russo for his work for the Universe Awareness programme.
This year’s K.J. Cath Prize was awarded to Pedro Russo for his work for the Universe Awareness programme.

A Dutch university

In his closing speech Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker reminded all those present that Leiden University is a Dutch university, irrespective of the language of instruction. ‘Our citizens expect – and rightly so – that we will train their future teachers, doctors and lawyers, and that our research will improve their living environment.’ These expectations, combined with the increasing number of students, invariably generates work pressure. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands intends to sail closer to the wind in terms of finances in an effort to balance the pressure of work. Stolker believes an important solution could also be to modify the system and the culture within the university.  He referred to the new code of integrity that calls for an open, inclusive academic world, where people have the courage and the space to raise difficult issues with one another. ‘We have to move from I to we,’ Stolker commented. ‘I am also very proud that we are the first Dutch University to join the Healthy Universities.’

Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker’s closing speech held a message for students and staff: ‘Look out for one another.’
Rector Magnificus Carel Stolker’s closing speech held a message for students and staff: ‘Look out for one another.’

University in balance

Work pressure is also an important theme among students. The announcement by Ingrid van Engelshoven, Minister of Education, that a limit will be placed on the Binding Study Advice (BSA) is, in Stolker’s opinion, a wrong message for students. ‘In the first year you need to be disciplined and smart in how you combine your studies, student life and possibly part-time work,’ he spoke directly to the Leiden students. ‘Make sure you have a good balance. Work pressure is something that is partly in your own hands.’ For the new academic year, his message to students was:  ‘Have a great year, and look out for one another.’ 

Celebrating 444 years of Leiden University

And finally, Stolker mentioned the foundation of the university in 1575, in this same Pieterskerk. At the next Dies Natalis the university will be 444 years old. ‘And that’s something we really have to celebrate! We will be focusing extra attention on our role in society, and on our roots in Leiden and The Hague. We will also involve all those people who don’t know our internationally oriented university from the inside.’

The audience can look forward to 2019, the year when Leiden University will celebrate its 444th year.
The audience can look forward to 2019, the year when Leiden University will celebrate its 444th year.

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