Anka Mulder


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Knowledge as an export product? 150 Dutch Ambassadors meet in Delft

One of my favourite Thomas Friedman quotes is this one: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the fastest lion, or it will be killed. Every morning a lion wakes up. It knows it must outrun the slowest gazelle, or it will starve to death. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you better start running.”

Yesterday, 800 staff of Dutch embassies and consulates, of whom around 150 ambassadors, visited Delft during their annual “home coming” programme.


Secretary General Renee Jones-Bos and I opened the meeting. The programme included discussions on “the position and ambitions of higher education” with VSNU president Karl Dittrich and VH president Thom de Graaf, information on the “Living Labs” project and on TU Delft MOOCs. This was followed by a discussion on cooperation between Dutch HE institutes and our embassies and consulates worldwide.

It is interesting that similarities between higher education and economics are growing, even in the words we use: competition, war on talent, globalisation, and higher education as an export product now are normal expressions for our sector.

Although I do not see HE as an economic product primarily, it is evident that it does have an economic impact. A report of the Dutch Central Planning Agency showed that incoming student mobility is good for our economy. Cities and regions try to house as many HE institutions as they can, because they know that this attracts talent and stimulates economic growth. Campuses create spin offs, attract companies and create jobs, shows a recent report of Buck Consultants International, commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Affairs and published in December 2014.

Universities have become global players. They have increasing numbers of international students and staff and growing international networks. At TU Delft, for example, a third of our master students are from abroad and 70% of our PhD candidates. We currently have 340.000 MOOC students, of whom the majority is international. We have numerous international research networks and a number of research institutes in China, Vietnam and Brazil, where our researchers work together with top experts from those countries.

Dutch research and education have a good reputation, which results in high scores in the international rankings. Nevertheless, only a small proportion of international students choose the Netherlands as their study destination. Students still prefer Anglo-Saxon universities. As for the rankings: a number of Asian universities have jumped to very good positions in the last few years. This means that the number of players fighting for a position in this very small space at the top is growing.

This makes it even more important that we make absolutely clear what our strong points are. Why students should choose the Netherlands, why researchers worldwide should want to work with ours. The universities that survive at the small place at the top are those which continuously improve their quality, and at the same time work on their global profile and visibility. Just like Dutch companies, we rely on our embassies and consulates. We need them to communicate what we do, help us scout for talent and strengthen our networks.

As for ourselves, we better keep running.



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