From 1 September, Professor Dr Luc Soete succeeded Professor Dr Gerard Mols as rector of Maastricht University (UM). And he’s excited – because in these times of economic crisis, UM is facing a great many challenges. Soete, professor of International Economic Relations, has definite ideas about the contribution that UM could make.
When the interview for this article takes place, Soete is still director of UNU-MERIT, a renowned international research institute in the field of technological development and innovation, affiliated with the UM School of Business and Economics and United Nations University.
Although he is looking forward to his new job, it is with a heavy heart that Soete will leave the institute he founded in 1988. “With just 120 employees, it’s a relatively small organisation,” he says. “The advantage is that I get to take responsibility for everything that happens here: from hiring staff to acquiring research assignments. And if it fails, you hang. I really enjoy that sort of clarity. That will be totally different when I’m part of the Executive Board – but I’ll try to adapt as well as possible. Incidentally, I think it’s useful for a rector to have an academic background. I’m a member of KNAW and I have quite a number of academic publications to my name. University rectors usually have mostly managerial experience. I’m the first rector here who hasn’t been a dean.”
With Soete’s arrival on the scene, the Executive Board is now composed of a Belgian, a German and a Dutchman from Groningen. “It’s a proper immigrant board. For me, the fact that the president Martin Paul, the vice president André Postema and I all come from different cultural environments gives the board an enormous wealth. There’s a great study on the European Commission, which showed that in meetings of people from the same culture, they came to a consensus very quickly in terms of content. Any discussions they had were mainly about how the message should be packaged and communicated. In multicultural meetings, there was more of a substantive debate. If a consensus was reached there, this went much deeper than agreements made in a monocultural setting, such as in a national government cabinet. So it’s no coincidence that the executive tiers of large corporations and other organisations are often multicultural.”
Duty to grow
One of the reasons Soete accepted the position of rector was to play his part in the contribution that UM can make in these economically difficult times. As he pointed out in his lecture during the rectorship handover ceremony, he wants to turn Maastricht into a “univercity”.
“Maastricht is the ideal place to become a true university town: a small, provincial city where different cultures and languages come together. In the last 20 years UM has more than doubled in size – an enormous growth – while industry and services, the city’s traditional strongholds of economic growth, have been drying up. UM is really the only major player with growth potential in terms of the numbers of both students and study programmes. In my opinion, UM has an obligation to the region and the city to make use of that potential. When it comes to study programmes, I’m talking about increasing programmes that are in line with local industry. The Science and Chemelot campuses are good examples of this. I can’t see Maastricht surviving without UM, and so we must take responsibility. Selective admission is all well and good, but if that means admitting 450 students to International Business when you have 3000 registrations, or selecting 200 students for UCM when 800 registered, should you not just expand?”
If it were up to Soete, more thought would also be given to the employability of graduates. “I see it as the responsibility of an educational institution to offer high-quality programmes that result in graduates finding work. Does the content of the programme meet the needs of the labour market? That is the new challenge.”
Growth is the key, then, not only in the number of study programmes but also in the number of students. This year, pre-registrations at UM rose by over 10 percent. This rise is attributable not so much to Dutch students, but to international students. And according to Soete, it will only increase.
“The crisis has given rise to huge growth in the number of students coming from southern Europe, for example. Young talent goes looking for places where there are better employment opportunities after their studies. If you graduate here, you have a much higher chance of getting a job than in Spain or Greece. So these people will not go back to their own countries – in contrast to what the government thinks – but instead look for work here. In other words, the labour market has become European, while most educational institutes are still nationally oriented. That we teach in English is a big advantage in that regard. On the international labour market, knowledge of several languages is essential.”
Though it is not easy these days to stay optimistic about Europe, Soete perseveres. “We’ve got to avoid the breakup of the EU at all costs, if only because the effects would be so gigantic.”
Here, too, UM has a role to play. “You could call the young people who are studying here right now “Generation Maastricht”. Born in ’92, they grew up with the euro and without the Wall. They have international contacts via social media and are defined by their mobility. This generation is looking for an identity, and their identity is that of Europe. The financial crisis works like a poison of distrust, continually fed by nationalism: the “us–them” mentality. The foreigner gets the blame. As UM, you have to look for tools that build confidence, such as employability: the offer of guaranteed employment in the euro zone. Europe is of vital importance to UM and owes it to the generation that grew up with the Maastricht Treaty. And to this end,” Soete says with a twinkle in his eye, “I have all sorts of ideas that I want to propose to the board and the deans.”
Let the multicultural governance debate begin – Luc Soete is ready.
By Annelotte Huiskes
Source: UM Magazine, 23 October 2012
Luc Soete (Brussels, 1950), professor of International Economic Relations, was director of UNU-MERIT between 1988 and 2012. He is a member of the Dutch Advisory Council for Science and Technology Policy (AWT) and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). Before coming to Maastricht in 1986, he worked at the University of Antwerp, the Institute of Development Studies and the SPRU–Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Sussex, and finally the Department of Economics at Stanford University.