‘We need to forge more links’

Mol and Buchwaldt explain the new strategic plan.
Photo: Aldo Alessie

WUR will reserve funds for new staff and investigate the options for curbing growth in student numbers. The board will also take measures to further encourage internal and external collaboration, according to the 2019-2022 strategic plan Finding Answers Together. Executive Board members Rens Buchwaldt and Arthur Mol explain their choices.

Text: Albert Sikkema and Anton van Elburg

The Executive Board presented the new strategy at the New Year’s reception on 7 January in Atlas. A couple of days later, Resource spoke to Rens Buchwaldt, the board member responsible for finance and HR, and rector magnificus Arthur Mol.

What are the key strategic changes in this new plan?

Mol: ‘We are putting even more emphasis on the impact our work makes than in the previous strategic plan. We want to make a difference in the world. But we can’t do that alone, so we need strategic collaboration.’ Buchwaldt: ‘The plan’s title is Finding Answers Together. We need to be more proactive in collaborating with one another and we need to partner more with other organizations because we don’t have all the expertise in house.’

 We see that innovation is mainly at the intersection of fields of knowledge 

Arthur Mol

The wider world is evolving?

Mol: ‘That’s right. We do very well in our domain, but we see that innovation is mainly taking place at the intersection of fields of knowledge. If we want to remain at the top, we need to start strategic partnerships with other universities and science institutes.’

Can you give some examples?

Mol: ‘We want to collaborate more within 4TU with the technical universities on hi-tech, we want to work with Eindhoven on robotics and data sciences, and with Utrecht on biological systems and sustainability. We also have a new investment theme, Digital twins, where we plan to build digital twins of cells, plants, animals and ecosystems. We won’t be doing that by setting up some big Digital Sciences group of our own; instead, we will look to link up with other universities that are strong in data sciences and sensors, such as Eindhoven University.’ Buchwaldt: ‘That requires a change of approach internally. We need to form more teams with members from different science groups. We should be more flexible in how we deploy staff and develop more internal links.’

You ask for more internal collaboration and yet you are keeping the five science groups.

Mol: ‘Abolishing the science groups would be going too far. WUR has identified three investment themes for the next four years, for which we will be reserving four million euros a year.’ Buchwaldt: ‘And Wageningen Research has five programmes, which partly overlap with the investment themes. The ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality will be investing 30 million a year in them.’ Mol: ‘These are all multidisciplinary research topics that we will be organizing across science groups. We will be bringing people together from different departments, with the science groups forming the basis. We are doing this with the aim of forging more links, including with clients.’

Do you have some examples of this?

Mol: ‘The Robotics team is a good example. There used to be two teams, one in the Plant Sciences Group and one in the Agrotechnology & Food Sciences Group. They would each approach clients individually. You lose out then, both in terms of content and in terms of the added value for clients. Now they collaborate intensively. They learn from one another and visit customers together.’ Buchwaldt: ‘We believe we should have more such teams in the next few years, and we need to make proper back-office arrangements for this. As an example, we should make sure staff from different science groups can record hours on the same project — that’s not possible at present. And make sure science groups are involved under the same conditions and with the same rules. That requires harmonization of internal regulations and procedures.’

The first investment theme is Connected Circularity, included circular agriculture. What exactly will WUR be doing?

Mol: ‘Agriculture minister Carola Schouten’s vision of circular agriculture is a picture of the future. If you listen carefully, you realize that we still have no idea how to put that circular vision into practice, or on what scale. Which cycles could you close and what does that mean for food safety, food waste, farmers’ incomes and the Netherlands’ position in the export market? We are really just at the start. The creation of the Agroecology and Technology Test Location was an important step.’ Buchwaldt: ‘We will work out the details of different options and scenarios, identifying the pros and cons. Hopefully that will play a role in the public debate so that we end up with a feasible plan.’ Mol: ‘We will be putting a group of people to work on this theme, who will set up a research programme in consultation with the ministry of Agriculture, the Dutch Federation of Agriculture and Horticulture and nature organizations.’

Photo: Aldo Alessie

Growing student numbers remains a key issue. Does WUR plan to curb the growth?

Mol: ‘Our guiding principle is the quality of the education, which we want to maintain come what may. So we want to keep our small-scale teaching with lots of contact between the teacher and the students. But that is fairly difficult if you have more students coming. That’s why we are looking into digital education and the “flipped classroom”, innovations that let us use our teachers where they have most to offer. The key question is how can you best transfer knowledge and teach students how to learn.’

Yet you also want enrolment restrictions for some degree programmes.

Mol: ‘Each year, we assess each programme to check whether the increase in student numbers is still manageable. The programme organizers decide that, not us. Nutrition and Biotechnology decided once again to set an upper limit, but the enrolment limit for Molecular Life Sciences has been scrapped as it is no longer necessary given the number of applications. We keep checking other fast-growing programmes, such as Biology and Food Technology, to see whether we should use this instrument. The ministry is not happy with the curbs on students but this is also about the funding of universities. More money is needed for technical education if you want to keep up teaching standards.’

 At present, if one nationality dominates we can’t correct that 

Arthur Mol

We also see in the strategic plan that you want to select international students for admission.

Mol: ‘Our point of departure is that we want to maintain the “international classroom” with a range of nationalities in our classes. At present, if one nationality dominates, for example Chinese students, we don’t have any means of correcting that. Delft has had the idea of offering Bachelor degrees with an English track and a Dutch track. You select students for the English track but not for the Dutch one. The ministry of Education is currently investigating whether this is permissible and if so, what form it should take. Is it desirable? At present this is not an urgent problem for WUR because the international intake in our BSc programmes is diverse and stable in numbers. But we want options for controlling rapid growth so that we can maintain teaching quality. That is why we monitor the quality every year.’

The plan says we want to terminate programmes that no longer satisfy a demand. Which are those?

Mol: ‘There is no question as yet of terminating programmes but we want to send a message. We are constantly reviewing programmes to see whether they match students’ interests and demand in the labour market. If there is a drop in that interest or the labour market, we want to take action. That didn’t always happen in the past because student numbers were so low.’

Photo: Aldo Alessie

You talk a lot about entrepreneurship in the plan. Is that a demand from the market?

Buchwaldt: ‘Yes. Students are more interested in entrepreneurship than they used to be; they are more likely to want to start a business or work for a company. So we want to give this more attention in our teaching.’ Mol: ‘Wilfred Dolfsma, the new professor of Business Management & Organization, is currently thinking up new educational paths that include entrepreneurship, for example in such Master’s degrees as Plant Breeding and Food Technology, so that it is interwoven with the degree domains. There will also be courses for PhD candidates and a minor in Entrepreneurship in the BSc programmes.’ Buchwaldt: ‘The second reason for doing more with entrepreneurship is that we want to make more of an impact. Wageningen has relatively few spin-offs compared with the other technical universities, although that has improved a lot in the past two years. We have a director of Corporate Value Creation, we now have more start-ups, we organize student challenges and we have investment funds that inject capital in new Wageningen companies. We have created an environment in which investors come along, assess the prospects for the new companies and invest on a commercial basis.’

 We will give entrepreneurship more attention in our teaching 

Rens Buchwaldt

Final point: the work pressure. How will the board be reducing the heavy workload for WUR staff?

Buchwaldt: ‘Firstly, we will be putting more emphasis on human resource management over the next few years. We have to do that anyway as the workforce needs to grow and many employees are due to retire. We need to hire at least 600 employees next year — about 250 new jobs and 350 replacement staff. We will be setting up recruitment programmes to achieve that. Both the university and Wageningen Research will be getting extra funds in the next few years and will be using that to take on more staff. That should reduce work pressure. Secondly, we aim to harmonize work processes and reduce the number of internal rules. We want a simpler HR policy with less paperwork and we want a clear framework with the staff themselves deciding what they do within those parameters. For example, staff at Wageningen Research have to record their hours. People often complain about that but it’s necessary as otherwise we can’t draw up bills and provide supporting evidence. But they are really talking about the freedom to allocate those hours, in consultation with the client. That seems fine to me and that helps the workload.’ Mol: ‘In the university, we want to reduce work pressure by offering a teaching career path in addition to the tenure track. That is intended for staff who primarily want to excel in teaching. We hope this career path for good teachers will reduce the education-related workload in the chair groups.’

Main points in the strategic plan

  • The Executive Board will be investing in three research themes: Connected Circularity, the Protein Transition and Digital Twins. Four million euros a year will be available for this.
  • WUR wants systematic collaboration with the strong international partners in the Agrifood 5 Alliance: UC Davis, Cornell, China Agricultural University and the University of São Paulo.
  • Investments in additional staff should help the university cope with increasing student numbers and enable more research at Wageningen Research. WUR aims to recruit 600 staff in 2019.
  • The university will check annually whether degree programmes need an enrolment limit. The criterion: is teaching quality at risk?
  • The university will investigate the possibility of selecting international students for admission, if deemed necessary to curb growth and maintain the ‘international classroom’.
  • Entrepreneurship will be given a more prominent place in teaching and research in the form of spin-offs, student challenges, and new modules and tracks.
  • The internal rules in the five science groups will be harmonized to facilitate collaboration.
  • Wageningen Research will invest in five multidisciplinary research themes: Circular and Climate-neutral; Food Security and Valuing Water; Nature-inclusive and Landscape; Safe and Healthy; Data-driven and Hi-tech. Over 30 million euros a year is available for these themes.
  • WUR wants to put more emphasis on the excellence of teams and less on the excellence of individuals.
  • The corporate culture needs to change. Managers will give staff more freedom, trust them more and let them take calculated risks.

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