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Interview vice deans Lex Kaper and Marcel Vreeswijk

Published on 13-05-2024 17:00
In April, former vice dean Lex Kaper handed over the vice-deanship to new vice dean Marcel Vreeswijk. Students Mae Busker and Maas Hermes spoke to both men about how they fulfil their roles in education.
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How did you actually end up in education? And why did you choose to become vice dean?

Lex: "Before I started in this role, the position of vice dean of education did not exist within our faculty. This position was created based on one of the recommendations from a report to improve education at our faculty, and also the regard to education, among other things. They recommended to appoint a vice dean of education so that education is directly represented in the board. That report motivated me to commit to this role and ensure the implementation of those recommendations. Prior to that, I had been active in education for quite some time, including as an educator and chair of the Physics and Astronomy programme committee.

I also worked outside the university for a while, where I was mainly involved in conducting research. But eventually, the substantive interaction with students drew me back to academia. It's great to see how much enthusiasm young people can have for science, both during their studies and during the PhD process."

Marcel: "I worked with Lex before, first as programme director of the Physics and Astronomy programme. And then I became education director of the newly split College of Science. So for me, the logical next step was to apply for the role of vice dean. I will remain as a lecturer in addition to this role.

For me personally, teaching has always had a warm place in my heart. I think it is important that others also have access to good education. It is important that students continue to be challenged and discover new things. Education has brought me a lot and I think it is important to also give something back.

For me, the strength of academic education is also that it is closely linked to research. At the university, we challenge students to operate at the forefront of knowledge, to see what else is possible at the edge of what we can do. That interplay between research and teaching is what makes it so valuable to me. We must continue to strive for innovation and improvement."

Lex, what have been the highlights for you in recent years? What have you been particularly focused on?

Lex: "Well, there have definitely been some highlights. One was the Visser and Van den Heuvel report, from which concrete recommendations emerged. For example, we split the College of Science into three Colleges, as had already been done with the Graduate Schools, which improved the organisational structure. We also strengthened the connection between management and education, including through the OWIDO (meeting with all education directors) and cluster meetings with management and the education and research directors. We also created more awareness about the financial side of education.

In addition, we also worked on the Technological Profile within the framework of the Faculty Strategic Plan, from which, among other things, the new ST&I programme emerged. In short, a lot of highlights in which I hope I have set a good example that education, and in this the lecturers in the so-called ‘D-line’, are put in a position where their strengths provide high-quality education.

My strength in that was mainly bringing people together and I hope that worked out well. Furthermore, I take pride in the way we tackled corona together. It was an incredibly challenging period that came on top of the job description for all of us. During that period, I saw how enormously driven people are to keep education going. I am immensely proud of the organisation that we have come through that well."

Marcel, what are your challenges for the coming period?

Marcel: "I want education to remain at high quality and ensure that the link with research continues, making sure that the academic staff are deployed to teach, alongside research. It is important to closely intertwine teaching and research so that students can benefit from the latest insights and developments. We need to uphold teaching at the highest regard.

Lex has brought the organisation together very well. It is a well-oiled machine, so to speak. The structure with the OWIDO works properly and will be carried forward. In the coming period, I will focus on strengthening and enhancing the visibility of our technology profile across the whole line, not just within the new ST&I programme, but even more broadly.

Furthermore, there are certainly a lot of challenges ahead of us, for example in the field of bilingualism and dealing with a declining student intake.

In terms of bilingualism, I think we are doing reasonably well. There are certain laws and regulations we have to comply with. We are quite a Dutch-oriented faculty. Our undergraduate programmes are mainly in Dutch, where we do offer the 3rd-year electives often in English, enabling exchanges with universities outside the Netherlands, a.o. through the Erasmus programme. In addition, our master's programmes are focused on English. So we are not very concerned about that issue.

But what does worry me is the intake of students from secondary schools. There are obviously demographic trends that we can do little about: fewer children are being born, which is eventually going to lead to less intake. In addition, the focus on science subjects in VWO is particularly important. If subjects like citizenship education, for instance, are now being added at the expense of science based subjects, that is reason to be worried. We need to make sure that young people are sufficiently encouraged to choose science subjects, otherwise there will be fewer students to educate in the future."

Lex: "It remains important that we, as a university, work together with secondary schools to ensure that there are enough qualified teachers who can convey the passion for science subjects and the link with the university to students. Therefore, it is also important that we ensure that the teaching profession remains attractive to young people and that we continue to invest in training teachers and encouraging young people to choose a science profile through Outreach. Not everyone who studies at university has a talent to become a researcher afterwards; some, on the contrary, have the talent to convey their passion for the sciences in teaching. We should value and encourage both directions."

You have handed over the role of vice dean. Are there things you have different views on?

Lex: "We have different approaches on some aspects, but we do come from the same school, so in that sense we do share the same core values. I'm sure Marcel is just as passionate about education as I am. So there is no difference there at all. I think we do have some character differences and so we will also have some different emphases. During my vice-deanship Marcel as education director helped shape the policy, so we already worked together on that. So it will remain to be seen where we differ."

Marcel: "The landscape is obviously slowly changing a bit, especially with fewer students. We have to adapt education to that as well. Lex thinks smallness is very important, so do I, so we both agree on that. Only we might look at it differently in practice, because I will be busy with the reduced inflow in the coming period."

Lex: "What I don't hope for, is that education will be mainly driven by its funding. I have always stood for the content and quality of education, and it would be a shame if we had to make decisions based on finances. Marcel is committed to maintaining good research within the programme, which can end up being costly. It would be unfortunate if that were jeopardised by financial considerations. We have actually had some money shortfall every year, but that was always compensated by having more students every year. But with demographic changes and the new government coming in, we can expect education to struggle."

Marcel: "This may also put pressure on the secondary school teachers we want to train, as there may be less teaching taking place in secondary schools. And that in turn affects the teachers we want to attract, who have to be enthusiastic about research and good at talking about it. Good teaching really has an important value in society. Unfortunately, I increasingly see that physics students, for example, are not choosing to become teachers, but other professions in society. This is also good for society, of course, but not for teaching. And the same goes for other subjects like mathematics and chemistry. That makes finding suitable teachers increasingly more difficult."

Finally, Lex, do you have any tips or advice for Marcel in his new role?

Lex: "Definitely, it's a challenging role where you have to juggle between different tasks. It's half a job, where you take on half the tasks of vice dean, and half still perform your 'old' job, and that in a 38-hour working week. My advice to Marcel would be to plan well and balance his duties as vice dean with his other responsibilities. But I am convinced that his enthusiasm for teaching will serve him well in this role. It is a tough job, but it is incredibly nice to get to know the faculty in this way. I am happy that Marcel is going to do this, because then I know the role will continue in a good way."

Marcel: "Thank you very much, Lex. I appreciate your advice and I hope I can live up to your expectations. I will do my best to fulfil my new role to the best of my ability."