Part lecturers critical of TU Delft’s growth plans

Growth plans proposed by the TU Delft Executive Board have been received with mixed feelings by lecturers. Some are concerned, while others envisage opportunities.

The lecturer in this photo is not featured in this article. (Photo: Justyna Botor)

With one mouse click, the Executive Board announced radical plans for the future to thousands of TU Delft employees in September. The Executive Board published in an e-mail that TU Delft must grow to 40,000 students in 2035 (there are now nearly 28,000 students). They will not all be studying in Delft: the Executive Board has in mind a ‘multi-campus strategy’ with one campus in Rotterdam for 10,000 students and another in The Hague for 2,500 students. With an internal and external consultation round, the cvb wants to find out how others view these plans. Delta is doing its own consultation round and already talked to students and Delft politicians (see below). Now it is the lecturers’ turn.

Utilising several campuses is a positive development in the opinion of Professor Marina Bos-de Vos of the Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering (IDE). “If all of this growth were to be housed in Delft, that would be a very different scenario. But I think that with multiple campuses we will find it easier to collaborate with other parties, like Erasmus University, the Erasmus Medical Centre, companies and government, on a range of important topics.”

She highlighted transitions in health care, energy and approach to accommodation as examples. Engineers and designers have a crucial role to play in those areas. “The challenges and problems the world is confronted with are now so complex and interwoven that more than one discipline is needed to solve them. I think it will be extremely useful to teach students in an early stage to think and work in transdisciplinary ways, and for education to be more firmly embedded in daily practice,” she said.

‘We need people with very different expertises’

Before Bos-de Vos joined TU Delft as a researcher and professor, she worked for an architectural firm. “It was there I noticed that we civil engineers had learned to speak the same language. When I was appointed at TU Delft, I discovered that scientists from other specialisations would talk, think and work in their own particular way. If we want to solve the current challenges, engineers and designers cannot do that without people with very different expertises, for example social scientists, business managers or physicians. It is a great benefit if at an early stage you can learn how other specialisations work. I think that expansion in The Hague and Rotterdam will encourage this trend.”

Quality of education and community feeling
professor Tom Vroegrijk, on the other hand, questions the benefit of multiple campuses. He is officially part of the Faculty of Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science, but teaches at several faculties. Before joining TU Delft, he taught at the University of Antwerp. “That university has multiple campuses, and it never felt like one unit. Each campus is separate. I believe that community feeling is very important for a university.”

He is most concerned about quality of education and student well-being. “However you look at it: an increase of 12,000 students distributed over 8 years is always going to have an impact on education”. He fears that given the tight labour market, TU Delft will not be able to recruit enough additional personnel to keep up with the number of students. “That means either larger groups or more online education. In both cases the quality of education and student well-being will decline. It is difficult to establish personal contact with your students in larger groups. You don’t notice as quickly when they are not doing well, and there is rarely enough time to answer their questions thoroughly.”

And online education? Vroegrijk considers it a ‘second-tier method of education that is only good as an emergency measure’. “The personal aspect is gone, and we also see more and more reports in the media about learning disadvantages and worsening mental health in young people as a result of online education.”

‘Many colleagues share my concerns’

Professor Ianus Keller from IDE Faculty feels that scaling up does not always have to be associated with a decrease in quality. He considers it a challenge to find new and improved forms of large-scale and online education. “At TU Delft, we are good at giving online lectures and dealing with the accompanying logistics. It can also be great fun to work together on learning with huge numbers of students.”

Mathematics professor Vroegrijk has noted that his colleagues are seriously preoccupied with this topic. It comes up spontaneously during talks around the coffee machine or in the corridors. “Many colleagues share my concerns.”

Other TU Delft professors also call the growth plans into question. Just like Vroegrijk, Margreet Docter worries about the impact of the growth plans on the quality of education and student well-being. Since 2012, she has been teaching nanobiology at the Faculty of Applied Sciences. One of her courses is called Electronic Instrumentation. “During the corona crisis we thought up really creative solutions to give students the experience of laboratory courses remotely. But ultimately, you want to watch over their shoulder to see what difficulties they encounter so you can make adjustments immediately.” She also thinks that TU Delft will not be able to recruit enough professors, managers and support personnel in time.

then there is work pressure. “That is already reaching the highest peaks it has ever done,” added Vroegrijk. Docter said, “If the plans are implemented, I’m going to need a time-turner like the one Hermione used in the Harry Potter series so can I can do twice as much in every hour,” she joked. In a more serious tone, she said, “It is already a problem to find enough professors and lecture halls. This forces some professors to teach a course twice instead of once a year. The work pressure has thus increased, for both professors and support staff. Although I do not mind working the occasional evening or weekend, overtime is not a structural solution in my opinion. The work pressure must not increase, but I expect that the growth plans will only change the work pressure.”

‘Which kinds of engineers is society asking for?’

In its e-mails and communications about the growth plans, the Executive Board continuously repeated that ‘the national demand for engineers remains high’. Docter and other professors wonder how great this need really is. “Which kinds of engineers is society asking for? It would have been better if the Executive Board had been more open about what this need is. If you see how many openings there are for practically trained people, it would seem better to focus on vocational education.”

She also doubts whether scaling up TU Delft is the right solution for the shortage of engineers. Figures from the umbrella association University of the Netherlands reveal that only half of the technical university students end up in a career that matches their prior education. Docter added, “Research has shown that many TU Delft students ultimately work in consultancy roles instead of truly technical professions. Perhaps we should take a different approach, for example promoting technical professions with government campaigns.” Professor Trivik Verma of the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management (TBM) published a similar comment on Twitter by wondering out loud how many of the additionally trained engineers would work in consultancy firms.

Attracting new groups to the university
Keller thinks that the growth plans form a great opportunity to address new groups of students. “We must draw the students from somewhere. It would be fantastic if soon people would find their way to TU Delft who never managed to do so before. For example, students from underprivileged neighbourhoods or first-generation students.”

Rector magnificus Tim van der Hagen alluded during a meeting in September of the TU Delft Works and Student Councils to ways of addressing these kinds of groups. “There are people who think that studying is not for them, for example pupils from Rotterdam-Zuid. So we shall have to go to those neighbourhoods: where are the talented students? We must also look at schools, or visit parents. I was in Manchester, they do such things there and are very successful.” Keller added, “How to approach these new groups of students is complicated. We will probably make mistakes on the way, but that is better than not looking for those kinds of students at all.”

‘When I heard that, I thought: we can do that’

He calls the plans greatly ambitious. “When I heard that, I thought: we can do that. We are engineers and used to thinking in terms of solutions. We can find a solution for practically every obstacle presented by the growth plans.” He is less convinced of only one thing. “Is society really in need of 40,000 TU Delft engineers and can we resolve societal problems with them, I have my doubts as a citizen.” 

Completely overwhelmed
of the professors who spoke to Delta would have preferred hearing about the plans from the Executive Board in another way than via e-mail. “It was dropped like a bomb,” explained Bos-de Vos, although she claimed to understand that you cannot please everyone when you want to make changes.

‘Are all capacity problems suddenly resolved?’

Vroegrijk added, “I was completely overwhelmed by the plans because they involve enormous growth. I was totally surprised.” He continued, “In the last few years, you can read stories about student well-being, increased work pressure, continuously shrinking financing of education and an increasing shortage of student accommodation. The gist was actually: we have to slow the growth in the number of university students to some extent. Are all those problems suddenly resolved?”

After revealing its plans, the Executive Board launched a consultation round that extends to mid-November. Some professors would have preferred the alternative route: first ask employees for their input and only then make plans. Keller would have preferred it if the plans had been delivered less top-down and more bottom-up.

Professor and Delta-columnist Bob van Vliet was also critical. In his column he called the plans ‘so radical that I would have appreciated a public discussion of its contents with all of us, prior to choosing a particular scenario’. “Now there is just a short ‘consultation round’ about a decision that has basically already been taken.”

Not every professor feels that they can express an opinion about the plans. One professor, for example, informed Delta by e-mail that he would prefer not to say anything. “I do have ideas about the situation, but because I do not have a permanent contract, I feel it would be better to remain discrete.” 

For this article, Delta approached 20 professors. We spoke at length with four of them and had email contact with two. With our selection we tried to get a representative group based on gender, nationality and Faculty.

  • TU Delft could have chosen other growth scenarios. Which ones were available can be reviewed here.
  • Read this interview with Executive Board chair Tim van der Hagen about the plans.
  • Delft municipal council members would have preferred hearing about the growth plans from the Executive Board than from the media. Their message for Van der Hagen? “Talk to us.”
  • The TU Delft student associations would also like to contribute to the discussion and brainstorming. “How can we ensure that there will be enough facilities for the current and new students?”
News editor Annebelle de Bruijn

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