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Carel Stolker: 'It's a no-brainer: the opportunity just has to be seized!'

Leiden-Delft-Erasmus (LDE) has been in existence for almost six years and will be entering its second phase in 2019. What course will the alliance take, what opportunities are out there and what is its mission? LDE Magazine spoke with Carel Stolker, rector magnificus of Leiden University and a member of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus board.

Sitting between groups of students in the bustling Wijnhaven building on The Hague Campus, he has a clear message: 'This alliance is unique – we complement each other and have achieved concrete results. We need to tell the outside world about that.'

The conclusion is that cooperation has genuine added value. In which areas is that added value to be found and are we responding sufficiently to the great trends in society?

Stolker: 'We are currently in the middle of the evaluation of the first phase. This involves taking a close look at things and making some decisions: which centres will continue and which will close? This is what we are discussing with each other, the centres, steering committee and deans. We also aim to identify areas where we find the most common ground academically. This is mainly in medicine, technology and the sciences. Medical Delta and the Holland Proton Therapy Centre also make a significant contribution in this area. In addition, albeit on a much smaller scale, the universities collaborate in the social sciences and humanities. Ultimately, of course, you want to cover a wide spectrum in order to showcase the whole of academia in Zuid-Holland, including the arts, sciences and social sciences and linking in effectively with wider social issues, but the cooperation needs to come from the bottom-up. Where scientists and academics see genuine added value, they will collaborate.'

Joint education and centres are also an important component of the LDE alliance. Is the link with social themes easier to manage here?

'Firstly, I’m extremely enthusiastic about the teaching – we already have 2,500 LDE students on joint programmes and minors. It’s wonderful that programmes can now be accessed by students from the three universities. This enables us to provide them with a wider educational grounding and prepare them more effectively for the complex issues that students will face later on. Some good examples are the LDE Bachelor's and Master’s programmes in Clinical Technology and the new LDE minor Frugal Innovation for Global Sustainable Development. There are two clear benefits here: the combined expertise of the partner universities and responding to developments in society.'

'The link with social themes is also clear from the perspective of the centres. For example, last year saw the LDE Centre for Sustainability enter into a multi-year partnership with the Province of Zuid-Holland and the business community: the ACCEZ innovation programme, focusing on the circular economy. This is a direct result of our Leiden-Delft-Erasmus alliance.´

´Although we ourselves may be quite modest about these kind of results, when we recently presented our case to consultants from abroad, they were very enthusiastic about the results achieved and the future potential: three universities, each with its own profile, that can complement each other in outstanding research and collaborate on social issues, all just a stone’s throw away from each other. It's a no-brainer: the opportunity just has to be seized! Personally, I also think it is a great added bonus that The Hague is located right in the middle of Leiden-Delft-Rotterdam. It is not only the administrative centre of the Netherlands, but also the third UN world city after New York and Geneva, for example in the areas of peace and justice. This is not only of interest to Leiden, but equally for Delft and Erasmus.'

That's an interesting link to the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) form a backdrop on which many organisations base their plans. Is that also the case for LDE?

'A UN agenda like that provides a shared language and common ground, which is of benefit for social cooperation. It provides direction, also for the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus alliance. We have conducted an analysis of the overlaps between the UNSDGs and the LDE centres. The Centre for Sustainability and the Centre for Frugal Innovation in Africa touch on many of the 17 UN SDGs. The same applies to Security. The SDG agenda is actually just one of the social agendas that we consider. We also place our ideas in the context of the Dutch National Research Agenda, for example.'

As universities working together, can you also take the initiative by putting social issues on the agenda? Does Leiden-Delft-Erasmus do that?

'As an alliance of three universities, we certainly have more impact, and are more effective as a group of three sending out a shared vision to the outside world, especially thanks to the huge scientific power we are able to muster by joining forces. This applies at LDE as much as for other universities. Strategic alliances are emerging across the Netherlands. Putting important themes on the agenda is more likely to happen in a wider context, via the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), for example. When the Dutch National Research Agenda was being written, the idea emerged at a number of universities of highlighting the subject of Digitisation since this is such a dominant development, wherever you look. Partly thanks to VSNU partners like Eindhoven and Tilburg, there is now a Digital Society agenda and all 14 universities are signed up to it. As the three LDE partners we have also made a joint contribution, making budget available to deploy professors on four of the seven themes.'

Our conversation reaches its end as VSNU colleagues await Prof. Stolker and students start to recognise him, greeting him with the words “Hello, Carel”. Any final message for those involved in LDE?

'I would like to point out that everyone can take part in LDE. Fantastic things have already been achieved, including in the field of organisational cooperation. A joint LDE trainee programme, an LDE leadership training course for professors, the EU Leading Fellows Postdoc Programme, with 90 post-doc positions and the LDE Centre for Education and Learning (CEL). Let’s not hide our light under a bushel, but get out there and talk about it!'

Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Magazine

This article was previously published in Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Magazine. You can read all the articles for free here or subscribe.

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