The Netherlands has a handful of renowned university towns. And although Tilburg also has a university within its borders, few people think of it as a university town. The city and the university are working more intensively to make that happen. But will it succeed? This is the first story of a series on the university region of Tilburg.
“Our university is very good in law and economics, our psychology branch is world-class, and our programs in artificial intelligence and in behavioral sciences arehuge.” Wim van de Donk is the rector magnificus of Tilburg University. In his office in the Cobbenhagen Building on Tilburg University’s campus, he talks with great pride about “his” university. “With our Zero Hunger Lab, we were very close to the World Food Program winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I still have a nice book about that,” he says, grabbing a leaflet from the large wooden bookcase at the other side of his room.
Van de Donk is not exaggerating. Several Tilburg University programs are indeed very highly regarded. The Shanghai Academic Ranking of World Universities, a quality assessment of universities worldwide, shows that the business administration courses earn Tilburg University ninth place worldwide. The university’s finance branch achieves spot 25 in that list. And other programs at Tilburg University also score well, regularly reaching the top 100 of the world’s best-regarded programs.
The rector magnificus could cite hundreds of examples of how his university plays a role, both locally and internationally. “We are involved in multiple ways. We have a city professor involved in research on what the city can do better. We have a professor who contributes to elder care. A logistics professor recently became the first non-American to win a very important award from his professional association. And I could go on and on,” says Van de Donk.
Meanwhile, Tilburg University’s image in the region, the province, and the rest of the country lags behind. Tilburg is not pre-eminently known as a knowledge city, let alone a university region. Where Utrecht University publishes internationally in collaboration with the business community, the Eindhoven University of Technology has established a veritable economic system with Brainport, and Leiden University is inextricably linked to the city, Tilburg University always seems to remain an underdog.
Backs against each other
For a long time, Tilburg University was not considered part of the city. Philip Eijlander, rector magnificus from 2008 to 2015, noticed this even when he took office as rector. “For a while, the city council and university stood with their backs against each other. When I became rector you could already notice that. I also felt we had too little contact,” Eijlander says. “But as a rector, I always said: you have to have deep roots as well as high branches. Of course, you must operate internationally as a university, but every university is also part of a city and a region. You have to have an eye for that as well. Both are important.”
Eijlander therefore made it a habit during his time as rector to speak informally with the city government. “The contacts between the mayor and the rector I found very useful. You shouldn’t wait until you have a problem. I always tried, in an informal way, to call the mayor or alderman occasionally and have one or two meetings a year to see what we could do to work even better together. And on top of that, on other dossiers, such as the Midpoint Brabant projects or student housing, there was, of course, contact between people from the university and from the city.”
When Eijlander stepped down, he saw that the cooperation with the municipality was going well. “But it had to be picked up further. It also had to be improved. It’s not like you can just say you will try something out. If you work together you must attract incredibly good people and keep going for a long time. Tilburg is now a student city, but that is still something else than a university city. We can also become a university city, but of course, we have to have the facilities such as enough qualified researchers, buildings, and housing for that. And that must be done in cooperation with the city,” Eijlander concludes.
Tilburg is now a student city, but that is still something else than a university city.Philip Eijlander
Eijlander’s successor Emile Aarts was rector from 2015 to 2019, further strengthening the ties between Tilburg and Tilburg University. “There was a whole program around social innovation that we continued with the city. During my time, the university also worked with the city as part of the law clinic. And there were many graduation projects where students somehow linked to the city,” Aarts lists a number of initiatives. Among those also MindLabs, an initiative around artificial intelligence that grew out of cooperation between the city and the university.
But, Aarts also says, cooperation hinges on the personal contacts between people. “I have had good contact with the mayors and aldermen. We especially liked to talk to each other. But some of the people from back then have since left, and so have I. We don’t always do a good job of transferring our files. With the departure of an alderman and me, for example, it is complicated to keep transfering ideas in the same way we intended. You don’t transfer friendship either; that’s very complex,” Aarts says. “You just have to cherish it, such a relationship. And that’s not always easy.”
A world to be won
And Tilburg does not necessarily have a natural turnover between the university and the city. “Tilburg is a somewhat special university region,” knows Joks Janssen, consultant-researcher at Het PON & Telos and Professor of Practice for Broad Prosperity in the Region at Tilburg University. “The university has a particular profile in the fields of law, governance, and economics, and with that, the university scores high internationally. But if you compare that specific profile with the region’s economic structure and labor market, the connection with the university is a bit more complicated. The job opportunities for students at this university are higher in the Randstad [the regions around cities like Rotterdam, The Hague, Amsterdam and Utrecht],” Janssen thinks.
This is also reflected in the figures, he observes. “In the number of co-publications between researchers and industry, you see that a university like Eindhoven has the highest percentage and Tilburg University the lowest. That says something about the university’s connection with businesses here. There is still a world to be won in that area,” he thinks. “But fortunately, you see that the rector magnificus and many professors within the university are busy looking at how we can make that connection with the city and the region. I do think that’s positive,” Janssen says./html
Tilburg’s university and city drew up a strategic cooperation agenda in 2018: From a City with a University to a University City. An evaluation of that agenda in 2020 shows that several projects are going well: for example, the city and the university are working well together on city marketing, a letter of intent for a campus for young entrepreneurs has been drawn up, and there is cooperation on grant applications to the European Union. In other projects, such as a proposal to examine the Tilburg municipality’s administrative model, it appears that there is no support from the municipality for such an examination.
A Tilburg University spokesperson added that very little has happened on that collaborative agenda since 2020 by corona. “Both institutions have operated in crisis mode during corona time,” she states. “But we are recalibrating the collaboration through the city professorship, the innovation district in the Spoorzone, and the research program.” That program is an initiative of the city council and the university and will be officially launched this year, although it is not yet entirely clear precisely what it will entail.
Rector and professors
What also makes cooperation between the university and the city more difficult is that the university is not a unified organization, the (former) rectors say. “We are not such a hierarchical organization,” says Philip Eijlander. “You can want all kinds of things as a board, but the projects you set up must also fit into the professors’ thinking. If it doesn’t, the cooperation within such a project becomes a bit artificial. You have to be careful of that, too. It has to be a real cooperation.”
Current rector Wim van de Donk agrees. “Cooperation with the university is not possible. What is the university? It is a conglomeration of people, professors, students, and a single administrator. I can shout many things, but you shouldn’t overestimate the power of a rector either. It is the professors, the research groups, and the employees of the university who can contribute something substantial to the development of the city and the region. As an administration, we can only organize and facilitate that,” Van de Donk said.
Professor Joks Janssen also thinks that cooperation can only go well if everyone knows what the other side is up to. “You need people who understand the university and how local society works. That is not given to everyone. So that takes time, and some experimentation. Especially in the beginning, things will also fail,” Janssen says. “And it requires focus. What are we good at in this region? You can’t focus on all the challenges, so you must pick a few. Health is a great example. The university is already working with the Elisabeth Tweesteden Hospital, health insurers, and the GGZ.”
‘Be good and tell’
In any case, the intention is to put the city more on the map as a university town; that much is clear. But isn’t the university too modest? “There are professors who say it is,” says Emile Aarts. “I would not say we are too modest, but it is important that what we say and do reinforce each other. You can’t give a speech as a union leader, and then drive home in your Rolls Royce. Not that we do that, but it is important to pay close attention to how people view the university. If the way people talk about the university changes, then we can catch up.”
Current rector Wim van de Donk, therefore, thinks he and his colleagues could shout out their successes a bit more. “We have to show what we have to offer. Be good and tell! That is not so much in our university’s genes. We are less inclined to express ourselves, I’ think’m sure we could do that more,” says Van de Donk. And he makes an immediate point himself. “On our career days, the entire Amsterdam Zuidas comes here to snatch our talents. Then I always say, ‘The only real Zuidas, that’s us.'”
Comments from the municipality
Two former aldermen of the Tilburg municipality with the education mandate were contacted for this article. They did not want to respond. The current alderman Esmah Lahlah was also contacted. She saw no opportunity to do so in her schedule. A request for an interview with an official of the municipality was declined.
This series is also published in Brabants Dagblad and was created partly with support from the Tilburg Media Fund.