Karel Luyben: ‘The university is an oil tanker’

Rector Karel Luyben is leaving TU Delft on 1 January. If the government does not provide more funding, TU Delft risks changing into a university of applied sciences, he says. “Efficiency can’t be increased indefinitely.”

Karel Luyben: “I think we should set up a European education system.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)


Lees je dit interview liever in het Nederlands? ‘De universiteit is een olietanker’

Do you think it’s time to hand over to the next person?

“Yes and no. I have enjoyed this job, and could stay in it another four years. But when you spent too long somewhere, you risk behaving like someone who thinks he knows everything and doesn’t listen to others. I want to take the knowledge and experience I’ve gained and apply it elsewhere.”

In what state will you leave TU Delft?

“If you believe the rankings, we’re in a good position. We’ve moved up on almost every list over the last 10 years. Of course, this doesn’t mean everything. What I find most positive at TU Delft is the culture, which is improving. There is more transparency and less distrust than 10 years ago.”

That culture of trust helps define the quality of the university

What do you mean with distrust?

“People do not trust one another by definition. If they did, you could turn the university into one big department in which everyone worked together perfectly. If research funding was left over from a project, it would go to the university as a whole instead of automatically to the leader of the study concerned. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. Most researchers keep that money for their own projects. That’s stupid, because if we all put it in one ‘pot’, we’d be in a stronger position and have reserves for hard times. That requires mutual trust.”

And there isn’t enough of that trust?

“It’s moving in the right direction. TU Delft used to be more hierarchical. Government funding went to the departments and then to the research groups and further. Now the money goes to the departments. Researchers decides what it’s spent on together. That culture of trust helps define the quality of the university. I believe such a flat structure makes it easier for researchers to compete with the world’s best. The university has almost 40 departments, about 10 of which are among the best in the world. I won’t say which ones, or I’ll get in trouble. Why aren’t there 20?”

Why aren’t there 20?

“It should be possible to have 20. Look at universities like MIT or ETH Zurich, where virtually every unit is among the world’s best. I believe having a flat structure helps. We should also focus more on bringing in talent early on. The further people are in their careers, settled with their families and have arranged their finances for research on the other side of the world, the more difficult it is to draw them here.”

How does the Executive Board promote this?

“We don’t promote research in the short term, except sporadically when we decide to increase funding for certain studies, as we recently did for blockchain and Urban Water Infrastructure. The university is an oil tanker that only slowly changes its course. My job is to change the culture, and that means talking. Every four weeks, I hold a faculty meeting. I invite associate, assistant and full professors at random and debate all sorts of issues which these faculty members put on the agenda.”

You will have discussed the heavy workload during those meetings.

“Workload is a catch-22 situation. Twelve years ago, we had 12,000 students. Today we have 23,000. The number of PhDs has also almost doubled in that time, but with the same amount of staff and government funding. Efficiency can’t be increased indefinitely. We have to advise researchers not to write research proposals every now and then. And we can expand the numerus fixus. If we don’t do that, we will eventually turn into a hogeschool, a university of applied sciences.”

Why will TU Delft turn into a university of applied sciences?

“Twelve years ago, we were able to put around 75 percent of government funding into research and the rest into education. When I took up the position of rector in 2010, the balance was still reasonably good. Now, more than half of that money goes to education, while we continue to do the same amount of research. People are working 60-hour weeks. If there is another shift like that in government funding, we will be like a university of applied sciences, because we won’t have enough money left for research.”

We can’t admit the whole world

The introduction of numerus fixus doesn’t make you popular with students.

“‘Karel doesn’t want people to go to university,’ is what I hear when it comes to numerus fixus. But the opposite is true. But if the Netherlands and Europe are not prepared to invest more money in education, we’ll have a problem. When we first introduced numerus fixus in Aerospace Engineering, that programme was so popular that it could have accounted for half of the teaching at TU Delft. Is that what you want? No. We need to keep breadth. So people have to study something else.

We’re not going to impose on people what they should study. We simply set limits. The demand for certain expertise in society is more important than the short-term interests of pupils.

I spent years visiting student houses and talking to students as part of the ‘Meet the rector’ sessions. Most come here for TU Delft and not just for a specific programme. Almost all of them have programme B or C as an alternative, and 30 percent have switched programmes. In short, a little directional guidance makes no difference.”

It could mean that pupils without high marks soon won’t be able to study at TU Delft.

“True. We can’t admit the whole world. There are other universities in the Netherlands, and also universities of applied sciences. And what about other countries? The Netherlands is small. We have to think on a global, or at least a European level. I think we should set up a European education system. It isn’t possible to get all the universities in Europe to the same level. Accept that and let the ‘excellent’ universities admit the ‘excellent’ people. That isn’t elitist; that’s differentiating. After my retirement, I’m going to work for a stronger European education system.”

What else are you going to do after your retirement?

“For the time being, I will maintain a 0.3 FTE post at TU Delft for my activities with CESAER, a European association of 51 universities of science and technology. I will also continue to be involved in the Open Science Policy Platform, a thinktank that advises the European Commission on open science: open access publications, data management and integrity issues.”

Looking ahead, what will TU Delft be dealing with in 2030?

“I’ll try to look even further ahead. Human life expectancy is increasing rapidly. Eternal life is on the horizon.”

That sounds like science fiction.

“We should assume that life expectancy will continue to increase. And we should assume that a lot of technology will be needed to keep people happy. If robots do all the work fifty years from now, people are likely to be bored to death. That is something we all need to consider.”


Karel Luyben (1951) became Professor of Bioprocess Technology at TU Delft in 1983. From April 1998 until his appointment as Rector Magnificus in 2010, he was dean of the Faculty of Applied Sciences. Since January 2014, he has been President of the Conference of European Schools for Advanced Engineering Education and Research (CESAER). In 2016, he became a member of the European advisory group Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP), which advises on the further development and implementation of open science policy to improve the quality and impact of European science. He is also vice-chairman of the Economic Board Zuid-Holland.

Also read this farewell to Karel Luyben from an assistant professor in the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science.

Redacteur Tomas van Dijk

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