Last year I taught a course on social movements at university. Using the hefty textbook, we discussed, using examples like the climate movement, pro-life protests, and Black Lives Matter, theories about why people organize, how to classify social movements, and how to measure their impact.
Impatience lurked during these conversations. One student, sometimes absent to chain himself somewhere with Extinction Rebellion, or to march through the streets of Glasgow in protest against the climate crisis, said in an outburst: ‘What a piece of shit. The world is on fire and we are here in a local hair to interpret. Who’s getting anywhere with that?’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Barbara Oomen is chairman of the Zeeland HZ/UAS University of Applied Sciences and in addition a part-time professor at Utrecht University.
Farmers Defense Force
Deep in my heart, I thought she was right. As a teacher, I also really tried to open the windows, such as during a guest lecture by the Farmers Defense Force on straw bales in a farm outside Middelburg. Yet in my response I explained to the student that this is simply the raison d’etre for science education. Understanding, interpreting, theorizing, to transfer knowledge and sharpen minds for a future social role.
I talked to students like this much more often over the years. What is the use of the theory? Can’t we get to work much more practically? In fact, smart, committed students, full of social impatience, do not belong in academic education (wo), but in the other half of our higher education: higher professional education. This is for three reasons.
Firstly, a higher education student, in any degree, immediately starts working in practice. Within logistics or in a living laboratory, in a food forest or a nursing home, a supermarket or a school. With social issues, because all Dutch universities of applied sciences committed themselves to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and placed them at the heart of their education.
Secondly, the distinction between wo and hbo is blurring because the universities used have become more and more knowledge institutions in recent decades. With lecturers, research departments and, from this year, even a third cycle: the possibility to work on a doctorate for another four years after your master’s degree. Practice always comes first. Where ‘valorisation’, the contact with practice, in scientific research is often the last phase of a project, practice-oriented research starts with social issues.
Intellectual journey of discovery
The urgency of these social issues is the third reason for this plea. The standard image of a scientific study still consists of years of self-fulfillment combined with an intellectual journey of discovery and then ever, far beyond, to get to work. But the problems of our time, the climate crisis first and foremost, are so pressing that you want to involve precisely the people who are most motivated to do something about them from the first year of study.
Despite the fact that university students looking for a relevant study with a direct connection to practice and the great challenges of our time should at least consider HBO, this is happening less and less. While one in three preschool students attended HBO at the turn of the century, it is now one in five.
What lies behind it is a puzzle. Salaries, everywhere in higher education strongly determined by the specific education and not the form of study, are hardly any different. The same applies to job opportunities. The level – higher education – is the same and abroad a bachelor’s degree counts as a bachelor’s degree, and a master’s degree as a master’s degree, regardless of whether it is from HBO or WO.
Perhaps the same mindset that I encountered so much when I switched from university to HBO this year: A very outdated image of vocational education and the misguided notion that university is ‘better’. While you are on more and more fronts, it is to innovate.
Against this background, in a political letter earlier this month, Minister Dijkgraaf drew attention to the strategic location of higher professional education and the importance of rethinking the binary system.
My prayer, however, goes out to all the pre-university students who often think in class: ‘What’s in it for me?’ Who want to work a lot with social issues during their studies. Not as an extra activity, but as the core of the study. Then come and see the open days in HBO. It is not only very good for the world, but also for yourself.