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History of the VSNU

 

In the 1940s the ideas that led to the founding of the VSNU were becoming fashionable. The association's origins were turbulent. Initially, there was the "Interuniversitair Contactorgaan" (1956), which was succeeded four years later by the Academic Council. These bodies did not meet with unqualified enthusiasm. That was the case right up until the Association of research universities in the Netherlands acquired its present form in 1985, after education had been democratised and the universities gained greater autonomy.

 

In the more than thirty years of its existence the VSNU has made sure that Dutch universities are held in high regard internationally, that they have a joint personnel policy with its own collective labour agreement, that they have a quality assurance system imitated by many countries, and that scientific education and research is inextricably linked to the Dutch knowledge economy.

 

In the 1940s much discussion took place about possible reforms in higher education. The universities appeared to want mutual collaboration in order to wage a collective strategy  towards the government. At the same time, the fear existed that intensive collaboration would lead to the universities losing their unique identities. Could they retain their individual character and safeguard autonomy, if they united? State Commissioner Reinink attempted to design the conditions for a collective body. The idea was that the universities would have to organise their own appointments, and the government would simply distribute the funds. To keep the construction on the right tracks, a coordinating body was needed. So, in 1956 the universities willingly took the initiative, which resulted in the "Interuniversitaire Contactorganisatie" (IUCO).  

 

Unfortunately, in 1960, after four years, came the demise of the IUCO. Minister Cals drafted a Bill heavily curtailing the power of another body, the Higher Academic Council. And so the Academic Council was born. Only the government was enthusiastic; the Council attracted a lot of criticism from the sector, among other things because of its complicated structure, with around thirty sections and four hundred people involved.  When, in 1976, a report critical of the Council was published, it came as no surprise. There was barely any evidence of consultation or coordination. The Council noted in particular the universities' divergent positions.  

 

In 1983, in new plans, Minister Deetman and Director General In ’t Veld made a firm distinction between advice (from independent parties) and consultation (by the very people involved). The Groningen rectors Van Gils and Engels also made a plea for an advisory body that could transcend the "sum" of university visions. This led to the founding of an advisory council and consultation rooms for scientific education (WO) and higher vocational education (HBO). Under the management of the Nijmegen university administrator Van Lieshout the Executive Boards drafted a plan. The idea was to strengthen the position of scientific education and research, without jeopardising the autonomy or competitive positions of universities.  

 

Partly due to the HOAK-nota in the 1980s a proper university quality assurance system came into being. From that point onwards, the quality of research and education was comprehensively monitored. In line with these notions, the Academic Council was succeeded in 1985 by the Association of research universities in the Netherlands (VSNU). In addition to the Board in which all universities are represented, the association gained an office that is financed by contributions from the universities. The association moved into premises on Leidseveer in Utrecht, a location right in the centre of the country, so that the association was easily accessible to all its members, the university administrators. Over the years the office swapped the cathedral city of Utrecht for the court city of The Hague in 2005. Although geographically less central, a base in The Hague increases the visibility of the association as far as political and other administrative bodies are concerned. Furthermore, the Ministry for Education, Culture and Science is close by; so too is the Cabinet, Parliament, the Confederation of Netherlands Industry and Employers (VNO-NCW) and the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences, the former HBO Council. The VSNU is thus able to fulfil its role - that of defining common positions and promoting interests - efficiently and effectively.