Launch of ambitious national digital research agenda

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands or VSNU has presented its national research agenda on “leading the way through cooperation in a digital society” to Minister for Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven.

The agenda sets an objective of ensuring the Netherlands takes a leading international position in the field of “people-oriented information technology” within the next 10 years and addresses global challenges.

Its contributing authors include eight academics, Andrea Evers, Marleen Huysman, Franciska de Jong, Liesbet van Zoonen, Harold Bekkering, Frank van Harmelen, Inald Lagendijk and Maarten de Rijke.

President of VSNU Professor Pieter Duisenberg noted in the preface of the agenda – which was presented at the VSNU Impact festival in Amersfoort last week – that it represents a “unique collaboration between the Dutch universities”.

Some 100 scientists from across all universities have contributed to shaping the research lines described in the agenda, which “offer enormous opportunities with the potential for global impact”, he said.

The themes range from democratic decision-making and eHealth to cyber security and responsible algorithm design.

Duisenberg said: “The Digital Society is a cross-cutting programme [running] through nearly all the routes of the Dutch National Research Agenda (NWA). As we take the first step, the Dutch universities will actively invest in collaboration with each other, our partners and broader society as we move to further this research agenda.”

In September 2017, the Dutch universities published their elaborated national plans for future-proofing higher education degree programmes in a digital society.

That 16-page report provides a good insight into the status of the international developments within higher education in digitisation, the most pressing international challenges ahead, and how universities could meet these challenges through cooperation.

Upon the launch of this higher education strategy, Hans de Boer, president of VNO-NCW, the confederation of Netherlands industry and employers, known as 'the Voice of Dutch Businesses', said universities can also stimulate the “necessary increase in talent of all ages” by investing in the training of specialised and multidisciplinary digital scientists.

“Relevant technological and laboratory infrastructure can be further expanded, such as through overarching players like SURF, the National Coordination Point for Research Data Management and the Netherlands eScience Centre.

“Testing grounds within universities can be used by the institutions to best prepare their education and research for the future themselves.”

Europe trailing

The higher education strategy was made on the basis of several international studies, among these an extensive report made by The Boston Consulting Group or BCG, Digitising the Netherlands. How the Netherlands can drive and benefit from the accelerated digitised economy in Europe.

BCG warns that there is already an intense international build-up in higher education digitisation elsewhere in the world and EU countries are in danger of being left behind.

“Looking outside of Europe, there are several other nations, particularly in Asia, that are highly digitised or are undergoing rapid digitisation, including Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and South Korea.

“There is a risk that European countries, including the Netherlands, will be surpassed by these more digitally inclined economies, leaving the EU in a digital backwater on the global scene, with capital, talent and growth at risk of being focused elsewhere when especially large international digital players shift their focus to more attractive markets.”

The group said the value at stake for the Netherlands of the successful creation of a true digital single market in Europe, combined with a rapid adoption of emerging digital technologies at home, is “substantial – a doubling of GDP growth rate is within reach”.

The Digital Society Research Agenda recommends an overhaul of higher education.

“Are we educating sufficient students in fields such as data science, informatics and computer science? And are we also involving students who are pursuing other degree programmes in the challenges and issues inherent in digitisation? Are there any blank and blind spots? Can we share knowledge and programme modules?” it asks.

BCG hopes its analysis may lead to proposals for new “multidisciplinary courses for developing academic skills in all facets of digitisation”.

It also notes that digitisation opens up opportunities for universities to create flexible module-based programmes, and to offer programme components as remote courses. This makes it possible to offer a range of programmes for the working population and for specific student groups (such as top-class athletes) who have a need for such programmes.

However, a specific range of programmes “often requires substantial investments”. It says: “We will jointly develop a knowledge base for switching from regular programmes to flexible, module-based digital programmes.”

A national research agenda

The agenda argues that Dutch universities are well placed to become leaders in social digitisation.

It says the Netherlands is a compact, highly developed, well-organised country with excellent physical and digital infrastructures. Its universities conduct high-level scientific research across the full spectrum of disciplines; and its researchers are highly experienced in crossing the boundaries between disciplines and institutions.

“This combination of qualities offers the Netherlands a unique opportunity. We can lead the world in creating effective interfaces between digital technology and people and their societies,” the report argues.

The present research agenda elaborates seven research programme lines:
  • Citizenship and Democracy: How to reinvent trust, dialogue and decision-making.

  • Responsible Data Science: How to enable full and responsible use of big data.

  • Health and Well-Being: How to let technology generate longer, healthier lives.

  • Learning and Education: How to enable people to participate meaningfully in all stages of life.

  • Work and Organisations: How to prepare companies and workers for a new economy.

  • Digital Cities and Communities: How to build smart, enjoyable cities and hinterlands.

  • Safety and Security: How to protect data, people and freedoms.
Professor Bert van der Zwaan, rector magnificus of Utrecht University, argued in his book, Higher Education in 2040, that digitisation is essential for universities, both in teaching and research. At the same time he pleaded for collaboration between the government and universities, because the challenge is too large for individual universities.

He told University World News:“I am extremely happy that in the Netherlands we have now agreed upon a really national strategy which is supported by both the government and all universities. This builds upon an already longstanding cooperation between universities in this field, where SURF (the foundation in which the universities collaborate) is taking care of collective needs by for instance providing high performance computing facilities.”

He said the present initiative aims to take this collaboration further and could keep the Netherlands – and the Dutch university system – “ahead in the game”.

Jeff van As, spokesman for ISO, the Dutch National Students Association,told University World News: “If the Netherlands as a country and as a knowledge economy wishes to keep up in the world and in the future, it is of the utmost importance that in both education and research we make a bigger effort in the field of digitisation. ISO hopes that this research agenda will stimulate further cooperation between universities in the digitisation and innovation of education.”