On Amsterdam\’s plans to establish a Third University



For the Netherlands, and its capital Amsterdam in particular, 2013 is promised to be a momentous year. On April 13th the city celebrated the re-opening of its famous Rijksmuseum with the centre of attention pointed at the Rembrandt’s Nightwatch. Jubilees in the city in 2013 include the Artis zoo, the Royal Concert Gebouw, its Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and 400 years of constructing the iconic canals of Amsterdam. Adding to the festivities is the inauguration of the new king Willem Alexander who is succeeding his abdicated mother queen Beatrix on April 30th. As if these weren’t enough reasons to plan a visit to the Venice of Northern Europe, the city government is hosting a competition to start a new research university with the alluring title Amsterdam Metropolitan Solutions.

The establishment of a new university in Amsterdam should first and foremost be seen in the light of supra-national policy goals set by the European Union.

It all starts in 2000 in Lisbon with the European Commission determined to transform Europe into the top-region in the world for research, innovation and educational excellence through the Lisbon Strategy. When it comes to EU policy strategies, the Dutch have a strong tendency to act accordingly to their proclaimed status of being the bravest and smartest young child in the classroom. Together with their ‘big brother’ Germany, the Netherlands holds a comparable approach when it comes to the national deficit not exceeding 3% of the gross national income on which EU member states agreed upon in 1997. The European Union pours billions of euros – 50,5 to be precise – in fundamental research through their 7th Framework Programme up till 2013, followed by another subsidy programme Horizon 2020 with an estimated 80 billion Euros being invested in the European knowledge economy between 2014 and 2020. From a European perspective the Dutch feel they have a knowledge-intensive responsibility to live up to.

The Amsterdam Metropolitan Solutions initiative is not unique in the world of higher education. Strong bastions of higher education and research have been seen incorporating increasing numbers of initiatives emphasizing their need to profile city-regions as bases for knowledge intensity and openness to innovative excellence. The Cornell-NYC initiative on Roosevelt Island in the East River is just one of many examples. Though the Amsterdam higher education landscape might be small as compared to other European peer-cities or world leaders such as New York City, the San-Francisco bay-area or Singapore, the initiative is comparable in terms of ambition and distinctive strategic goals related to the local knowledge economy.

Let’s take a look at Amsterdam Metropolitan Solutions.

The initiative is designed to attract foreign universities interested in forming a consortium with Amsterdam headquarter-based and internationally operating businesses, as well as one or more Dutch research institutes or universities, all organized around a city-minded or urban research issue. This research should be executed on a PhD and Master-students level. This new research school will thus attract more students and PhD jobs to the city of Amsterdam (note that a PhD track is a paid research job in the Netherlands). The initiative originated at in city council and was adopted by the city government and its newly established Amsterdam Economic Board. The city government is determined to invest 20-50 million Euros in the winning consortium aiming for sustainable urban research solutions for 50 years to come.

Needless to say, the two existing universities in Amsterdam (the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), together with two academic hospitals, several national research institutes and two of the largest colleges (or Hogescholen) for applied sciences (a group that represents over 5.000 researchers and 108.000 students) have opinions on this development. As presented with the initial plan investigating this option by the Boston Consulting Group in April of 2012, the two universities where at the least to say not amused that the city government was planning to invest 20-50 million Euros at a time where student numbers are rising and government budgets for those same students are declining.

At the same time both city government and the two universities, together with representatives from major businesses in the Amsterdam region are represented in the formerly mentioned Amsterdam Economic Board, which acts as a senior executive discussion panel and advisory board to the city government on these and other regional economic issues. Since the 90’s the Dutch have been famous for their model of negotiating and discussing political, economic and societal issues within closed quarters thereby rarely resulting in heavy fought conflict and always bringing about pragmatic solutions where all parties can more or less agree to (the so-called “polder model”). The same holds true for this initiative, where pragmatism took over and where both city government and the two universities now see this initiative as complementary to the current stock of internationally renowned research areas.

In applying for the Amsterdam Metropolitan Solutions initiative, every consortium should only hand in a proposal that is complementary to the existing research areas in the Amsterdam region. The Amsterdam Economic Board made sure that it is a minimum condition that the consortium seeks to collaborate and apply with a Dutch research institute, university or college and that they team up with large businesses in the region. This will probably result in several consortia where both universities in Amsterdam will take part in, thereby spreading the risk and at the same time keeping track of the disciplinary focus in which the initiative is heading.

What is next? On April 25th a conference was organized where interested partners from the Netherlands and abroad were informed about the opportunities in the initiative. All information and data is available and published online. The city government is expected to receive somewhere between 5-10 applications on the first deadline of June 3rd 2013 which then will be judged over the course of the coming summer. Up to five initiatives will be rewarded € 60.000 each in the second round to further investigate their plans and to hand in a sustainable business plan and project plan.

Eventually this “third university”, as it is dubbed in the Amsterdam higher education network, will become the first industry-academia-government initiative of its kind in The Netherlands to focus entirely on urbanization and metropolitan research issues. This is a needed area, and it builds links with long-standing areas of expertise and capacity in Amsterdam’s higher education institutions. This said, the larger question of whether or not Amsterdam Metropolitan Solutions will contribute in its own way to the EU goal of becoming the top-region in the world for research, innovation and education excellence remains to be answered.

Author Bio:Jurjen van Rees is co-founder of The ANT Works, an Amsterdam-based research and consultancy company that works with Fortune-500 companies and is specialized in innovation strategy and analysis of big data in intellectual property and research output through the use of bibliometrics and scientometrics. Jurjen is an expert regarding the organisation of the Dutch higher education landscape and the Amsterdam university landscape in particular.