Sound the Alarm: the Time for Talking is Over

* Editor’s Note: Earlier version did not contain footnotes provided by authors, this has now been corrected and they can be found at the end of the article. Furthermore, the article was updated during which 2 mistakes were corrected: 1) the rating score is 68, not 64. 2) ‘instructor quality’ in paragraph 2 replaced first year retention, for which the authors read the table wrongly, and apologise.
* Editor’s Note: The following sentence regarding international recruitment has been amended from “The school, for instance, chose to invest hundreds of thousands of euros in a global recruitment strategy while not even offering full program scholarships to international students” to “The school, for instance, chose to invest tens of thousands of euros in a global recruitment strategy while not even offering full program scholarships to international students.”
An Opinion Piece by UCR Alumni Jonathan Seib (2017) and Frits Brouwer (2012)

THE HAGUE – This week’s publication of Keuzegids Universiteiten 2018 cemented UCR’s newly acquired status as a sub-par institution. With a 68 total score and a 12-point difference with its second-worst-ranked peer institution, Roosevelt finished dead last among all of the country’s University Colleges. This is a crisis if UCR ever saw one. Yet, while prospective students will increasingly regard UCR as their second or third choice, management has so far failed to present ways for the college to return to the top and act accordingly. And so, we sound the alarm. The time for talking is over. It is time to act.

UCR scores particularly poorly in the areas of instructor quality, the organization of its educational programme, and its facilities. Skill development, supervision, and the quality of course offerings are all slightly above average in comparison to regular (non-UC/LAS) programmes. Quality of education has been declining since 2015, going from +++ to +. And while rankings tend to be notoriously volatile, UCR will be the only University College to not bear the Keuzegids seal of excellence next year. (1)

Being known as the worst UC in the country has at least three deleterious consequences. In the first place, high-quality students – especially Dutch students are aware of the NSE and Keuzegids rankings – have little incentive to apply to a school with a poor reputation. Less capable of dealing with the school’s academic pressure, students that do enroll are likely to reinforce UCR’s low status. In the second place, UCR’s diploma, once a marker of excellence, will also rapidly lose in value for both employers and top graduate schools. And finally, the college, already at a disadvantage due to its location and financial difficulties, will have even greater trouble attracting the top staff they desire.

If the school would not already be at the bottom of the heap, we would call this a vicious cycle.

Things were not always as bleak. As UCR are still eager to show on their recruitment page, (2) the Middelburg college used to be the first among its peers as recently as in 2011. (3) It dropped to fifth place in 2013, (4) climbed two spots a year later, (5) and retained an adequate score in 2016. (6)

It was never the worst. So where did it all go wrong?

We identify three key problems with which UCR has so far been unable to cope. In the first place, the school seems to have ignored the basics of its residential-educational format, such as campus housing, IT facilities, curriculum intensity, and class sizes. Over the past few years, UCR has sought to remain the UC with the lowest tuition fee (7) while maintaining its place among financially stronger peer institutions. In order to achieve this, the college chose to stretch its resources thin rather than to fully invest in the facilities for which students have spent years lobbying. The focus was elsewhere. The school, for instance, chose to invest tens of thousands of euros in a global recruitment strategy while not even offering full program scholarships to international students. (8)  As other facilities remain sub-par, this is a choice hard to defend. (9)

In the second place, UCR lost sight of its unique strengths. Expanding UCR and spending an unreasonable amount which the school does not have on establishing departments in fields in which it does not excel, would be an unwise choice. UCR does not only allocate finances on (creating plans for) future programs, but also allocates time, energy, and focus which should have been on the institution itself, on expansion. (10) Rather than expecting students to pay up for these ideals, the school would be wise to use its unique location, tracks, and staff specializations to remain a traditional LAS institution while focusing on a handful of interdisciplinary topics. (11) The interdisciplinary courses UCR proposed in the 2017-2021 Strategic Plan seem like an excellent start. In addition, performing arts, law, media, mathematics and political science are just a few examples of tracks in which UCR (used to) excel. Unlike starting up a new engineering department, these tracks and interdisciplinary courses have the added benefit of being relatively inexpensive. UCR should focus on its core strengths before expanding. Becoming a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ is otherwise inevitable.

In the third place, the steady decline of the quality of education cannot be delinked from the college’s general want for democratic identity and vision. It is true that the school has adopted a number of student considerations, including demands for smaller class sizes and more study places. However, while the new dean has established Public Spheres for the discussion of the school’s future, many students were still left confused by the newly proposed 2017-2021 Strategic Plan’s disregard of their concerns. Why should an Engineering Department be established if resources are already limited? Where would its 300 new students be housed if providing current students with adequate housing facilities is already too much to ask? (12) In addition, what matters with regard to student concerns in general is not only their objective veracity (do they really study more hours than their predecessors did 10 years ago? is the institution really less democratic than it used to be?) but also their perceptions of the current state of affairs. If they perceive the programme to be too heavy, the facilities to be poor, and the quality of education to decrease, that in itself is a problem. In response, UCR management should not say, but prove to current students that their concerns are being prioritized.

So what can UCR do to fix this?

We believe that there is only one way for UCR to get back to the top: both academically and practically, the college must return to the basics. Academically, your focus should be on the things at which you used to excel: media, law, fine arts, political science, mathematics. While continuing to offer a broad variety of courses, such areas are the ones in which you should choose to provide in-depth training. Spend money on attracting excellent staff. Spend money on reducing class sizes. Spend money on enhanced personal student supervision. Ensure your educational programme is well-organised and you have an instant-response plan to unforeseen circumstances.

Practically, you should finally prioritise those problems that have been student concerns since the history of the college: IT facilities, quiet study places, your relationship with Woongoed/Villex. Invest in proper housing. Invest in state-of-the-art facilities for your core educational focus. If you want to attract a more diverse student population, invest in a few scholarships. (13) And set up a better alumni network to help you with the scholarships and get free publicity with their return to Middelburg for guest lectures. One day, they will be your most important resource. And they always will be lifelong ambassadors for their alma mater.

The back-to-basics approach will be accompanied by controversial measures. These are part of every rescue plan; plans and measures which would not have been necessary if the long-term policy would have been adequate. A tuition fee increase, temporarily increasing class sizes, and removing some tracks have proven to be inevitable for UCR’s current plans. Students and staff will have to accept these measures if they wish to ensure a strong UCR in the long run. However, the institution needs to reconsider how these measures can be justified – in communication and action – while they do seem to have sufficient budget for setting up new tracks (astronomy) and recruiting across the globe.

UCR will get over this. We are sure it will. It must. But now is the time to sound the alarm. We are not saying we know best. After all, we both graduated a while ago. Many current students will have a far more lucid perspective. We hope that UCR management will take their perspectives into account as well. And we are looking forward to the decisions we hope it will soon make. The time of discussion, public spheres and polderen is over. No more talk. It is time to fix UCR.

Frits Brouwer is a graduate of the Class of 2013 and graduated in Philosophy, Social Psychology, International Relations and Rhetoric. You can contact Frits via ibrouwe2@jhu.edu.

Jonathan Seib is a graduate of the Class of 2017 and graduated in Law, Computer Science, Politics and Statistics. You can contact Jonathan via jonathan@seib.nl.

List of Footnotes:
 (1) An interesting discussion can be held on the validity of these rankings. For example, the expert judgement of the Keuzegids was ++, the highest achievable grade. Regardless of the actual quality of the rankings, we believe prospective students, employers and others will read these rankings without considering the methodology behind it. What matters is that the perceived quality of our institution and diploma will be affected, which has a negative impact on recruitment and alumni.
(2) University College Roosevelt, ‘Accreditation and ranking’, available online at http://www.ucr.nl/about-ucr/Pages/Accreditation-and-ranking.aspx, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(3) Keuzegids 2011, ‘University College: Studeren als Harry Potter’, available online at http://www.keuzegids.org/ol/gidsen/uni11/artikelen/vnw_unicollege.php, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(4) Ries Achterberg, ‘Ook Roosevelt Academy Utrechtse top’, DUB, 11 December 2012, available online at https://www.dub.uu.nl/nl/nieuws/ook-roosevelt-academy-utrechtse-top, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(5) Erasmus Magazine, ‘Niet alle university colleges zijn excellent’, 15 Novemer 2013, available online at https://www.erasmusmagazine.nl/2013/11/15/niet-alle-university-colleges-zijn-excellent/, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(6) ROC Nederland, ‘Acht Utrechtse studies behalen eerste plek in Keuzegids Universiteiten’, 2 November 2015, available online at https://www.roc.nl/default.php/default.php?fr=nieuws&nieuwsitem=72050, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(7) University College Roosevelt, ‘New Tuition Fee Structure’, available online at http://www.ucr.nl/intranet/news/Pages/New-Tuition-Fee-Structure.aspx published on 17 December 2015, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(8) Friends of UCR offer interest-free loans, not scholarships. It is unknown when the last UCR Scholarship was given out. For more information, see University College Roosevelt, ‘The UCR Scholarship’, available online at http://www.ucr.nl/finance/Pages/The-UCR-Scholarship.aspx, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(9) For an overview of UCR’s budget in 2016, see their public financial statement at University College Roosevelt, ‘ANBI Statement 2016’ accessible online at http://www.ucr.nl/finance/Documents/Stichting%20University%20College%20Roosevelt_2016.pdf, last accessed on 16 November 2017. Also note that some facilities, such as improving housing, do not even require large investments from the institution, but only requires good management and a smart negotiation strategy. UCR facility manager Huib Hubregtse’s most recent initiative to focus on student housing is a prime example of this.
(10) It is unclear whether these expansion efforts are pursued by UCR independently or whether there is (financial) pressure of other stakeholders that desire expansion for economic purposes. See Province of Zeeland, ‘Een Zeeuwse beta Campus Zeeland’, available online at https://campuszeeland.nl/speerpunten/b%C3%A8ta-college.html, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(11) Setting up a strong business case of 23 tracks for 600 students is a challenge. Expanding the number of UCR students to 700, 800 or 900 while offering the same 23 tracks – just with more (focused) courses per track to prevent increased class sizes – is a more viable option for a business case. Compared to traditional LAS colleges in the United States, a student population of more than 600 students makes sense. This way, costs can be saved on overhead. See U.S. News, ‘National Liberal Arts Colleges’ available online at https://www.usnews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-liberal-arts-colleges, last accesses on 17 November 2017.
(12) Faye Bovelander, ‘A critical perspective on the Strategic Plan 2017-2021’, Tabula Rasa, available online at https://tr.rasa.nu/?p=3954, last accessed on 16 November 2017.
(13) In comparison, Erasmus University Rotterdam raised 26 million euros within a matter of days for their research fund for 21st century societal challenges. For more informations eee Erasmus University Rotterdam, ‘Campagin Launched’ available online at https://donate.eur.nl/nieuws/1434-campaign-launched, last accessed on 16 November 2017.

One thought on “Sound the Alarm: the Time for Talking is Over

  1. Nice article with a clear explanation of the problem! I however truely believe that looking back at the good old days of UCR is a dangerous statement though. In order to distinguish yourself and offer attractive courses, UCR should ask themselves which studies are still relevant in our current society. Don’t forget that companies that hold on to the past and don’t innovate, are most likely to go bankrupt.

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