Interview with outgoing Secretary General IJsbrand Haagsma

4TU Delft
4TU Eindhoven
4TU Twente
4TU Wageningen
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"I have seen 4TU develop substantively into a powerful and effective organisation that offers society initiatives that add value."
IJsbrand Haagsma

Secretary General IJsbrand Haagsma is leaving the 4TU.Federation as of 1 November to continue his career as Special Envoy for Public Affairs at the University of Twente. In an interview with 4TU, Haagsma looked back on his eight years as the 4TU.Federation's Secretary General.

Eight years as Secretary General, or do we mean eight years of the 4TU.Federation?
No, the 4TU.Federation has existed for longer than that. The initiative was taken in 2005 and formalised in 2007. It started as 3TU, involving Delft, Eindhoven and Twente. At that stage, Wageningen wasn't part of it yet. And I only joined in 2012.

How did it start?
Combining the strengths of the universities of technology was an initiative that originated with the business community and government. This was an entirely different era. Pupils – and girls, most definitely – were not interested in technical degree programmes. Campaigns launched in the eighties and nineties to get more girls interested in the exact sciences (“Kies Exact”, “Een slimme meid …”) garnered attention but did not have the desired effect. The low student numbers at the time exerted pressure on universities of technology to collaborate more. This is where the idea of a federation originated; it grew from the idea that investment in universities of technology had to be done in a considered, structured manner. The “Meer Betere Bèta’s” (more and better natural scientists) programme and the Technology Pact that followed were necessary for boosting the student numbers. We translated these into the 3TU Technology Sector Plan 2011-2015; with the support of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, this plan allowed us to achieve an enormous increase in student intake. 

Was the co-operation good, right from the start?
Certainly, and still it grew even further. The co-operation was always content-driven, and it remains so. In the beginning, the division of the available funds was still a regular topic of discussion, but these discussions receded into the background as the mutual trust between the member universities grew.

The focus on content is reflected in the way in which we now organise our research. Initially, we carried out research in five centres of excellence, the underlying organisational principle being to form research priority areas. Developing focus and mass in particular research priority areas enables you to achieve higher quality and greater recognisability, which still is the case in the current discipline-oriented sector plans for science and technology. The federation gradually and steadily moved more towards thinking from the point of view of the societal challenges we face. This is well reflected in current research programmes such as the High Tech for a Sustainable Future programme, in which 4TU researchers work on finding concrete solutions on the topics of agriculture and horticulture, our exercise and eating behaviour, health, robotics and a resilient society.

"The universities of technology have the same rational view of the world and are driven by the desire to create things and to seek solutions."

What is the secret to the successful co-operation?
I think it's mainly driven by the fact that the four members have a similar working culture. The universities of technology have the same rational view of the world and are driven by the desire to create things and to seek solutions.

And it's driven by our shared pride in the things we have achieved together, such as DEAN, the network of TU alumni abroad, or 4TU.IMPACT. The latter grew from a discussion between the valorisation directors, who found that they could do far more things together and all it needed was a managerial nod. Many of these kinds of co-operation originated in the workplace, after which management embraced them and provided the necessary budget as required. The realisation grew that strength lies in representing each other, for example in discussions about funding, or in talks with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy regarding societal and economic impact. A recent realisation was that we do not do this all that much in Europe yet; this led to the formulation of a new ambition right away.

We fully realise that we need to co-operate with other partners in this regard as well. You need to co-operate with other academic domains if you are to be of any use to society; this is becoming increasingly important to the universities of technology and is part of the 4TU strategy for 2020-2025

What do you consider the greatest successes you were involved in during these eight years?
Looking back chronologically, I see a number of really significant things. First, the establishment of the Centre for Engineering Education (CEE). This has grown from being a rough sketch on paper to being a successful centre that is recognised internationally. With support from my colleague Linda Baljeu, Jan van de Veen and Perry den Brok built this centre from its very foundations; this was the stuff of pioneers, and it is really pleasing to see what this rough sketch has now become. A visible example of this project is the innovation map, a rich database full of educational innovations that is well used by people within and beyond the universities.

The second example of success was Wageningen University joining the Federation. When the Federation was established Wageningen was also approached about taking part, but they did not feel the need then. The university had a solid reputation and at the time they considered autonomy important. At a certain point they started receiving questions from the business community that required knowledge of high tech as well as agricultural and nutritional expertise. We entered into substance-driven discussions with them to establish whether we could address these questions more effectively as a foursome. It didn't take us long to answer this question in the affirmative, and I have the impression that everyone still considers the step we took in 2016 a good one.

We also succeeded in putting the issue of funding, which is an important one for the universities of technology, on the political agenda. We were very concerned about whether we would actually be able to train the large numbers of engineers, and the increasing number of student quota were leading to much dissatisfaction in the business community. The government eventually decided to redistribute the available funds between the universities. Unfortunately, this political decision led to tensions between the universities of technology and the general universities for a while. We would much rather have seen extra funds being made available for science and technology, not the funds being taken away from the comprehensive universities. It is important though that we got this put on the agenda. The growth in student numbers and the associated lagging financing are very extreme in the science and technology field.

"This, too, is typical of 4TU: the content that drives researchers and spurs them on continually to seek new funding!"

Finally, I would like to refer again to the HTSF programme I mentioned before. Besides the fact that this programme will yield positive results for society, it is also an ideal instrument for embedding co-operation for the long term. These programmes involve talented senior researchers, so-called tenure track candidates, working in a team on a societal theme. The researchers all start at the same time and they apply for grants together, which results in close communities developing. These kinds of contacts are expected to be lasting ones. This, too, is typical of 4TU: the content that drives researchers and spurs them on continually to seek new funding!

And now: looking ahead. What do you think you're going to miss?
What I think I'll miss are the things that are now coming into bloom. The Sector Plan for Science and Technology Education is currently yielding co-operation between the science faculties and the technology faculties. By working together they can make a greater impact. For example, they are working together to increase capacity in order to train more computer science students and to spread capacity around the country as much as possible. We need computer scientists in increasing numbers for the new professions emerging in Data Science, Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Security.

Besides this, every institution has its own profile and the content of each institution's degree programme varies just a little from that of another institution. If pupils are able to arrive at study choices that are better informed, this will prevent students dropping out or switching to degree programmes outside science and technology. Pupils currently get very little help in this regard. The IT or computer science degree programmes vary so much. Take the Artificial Intelligence field, for example. This might involve learning to build algorithms, but also the language used in software such as SIRI, or how to influence behaviour. Add to this the fact that university education isn't always a better choice than higher professional education. By listening carefully to what a pupil wants, you increase the chance of them ending up in the right place.

What I most certainly will miss too is the follow-up to the Techrede speech. In the Techrede, we show what the political world needs to do to allow rapid innovation to be achieved. The National Growth Fund is a good first step in this direction, but a lot more needs yet to be worked out. I would have liked to stay involved with the follow-up in the run-up to the elections. Fortunately, I will remain closely involved with this subject in my work for the University of Twente.

And so to the last question: will we be seeing you again?
I certainly intend to be seen again. I will be representing the University of Twente in The Hague, among other things. As the University of Twente is part of 4TU, we will certainly need to align our stance on certain topics with that of the three other universities. I will certainly come across many of my 4TU colleagues in my new role!

IJsbrand Haagsma is an engineer from Groningen. After graduating in Applied Mechanics, he started as a researcher at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at TU Delft where he helped develop the wave prediction model SWAN. After a career switch, he became Secretary General of the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering in 2005. Before being appointed Secretary General of the 3TU.Federation in 2012, he was Chair of the Departmental of Materials Science & Engineering for two years. During this period he presided over a restructuring and secured structural involvement of the business community. 

In a voluntary capacity, Haagsma has been a member of the board of the Royal Dutch Rowing Federation (KNRB) for more than 13 years. He derives enormous pleasure from coaching talented rowers. A number of his pupils are currently preparing for their participation in the (postponed) Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Interview with outgoing Secretary General IJsbrand Haagsma

"I have seen 4TU develop substantively into a powerful and effective organisation that offers society initiatives that add value."
IJsbrand Haagsma

Secretary General IJsbrand Haagsma is leaving the 4TU.Federation as of 1 November to continue his career as Special Envoy for Public Affairs at the University of Twente. In an interview with 4TU, Haagsma looked back on his eight years as the 4TU.Federation's Secretary General.

Eight years as Secretary General, or do we mean eight years of the 4TU.Federation?
No, the 4TU.Federation has existed for longer than that. The initiative was taken in 2005 and formalised in 2007. It started as 3TU, involving Delft, Eindhoven and Twente. At that stage, Wageningen wasn't part of it yet. And I only joined in 2012.

How did it start?
Combining the strengths of the universities of technology was an initiative that originated with the business community and government. This was an entirely different era. Pupils – and girls, most definitely – were not interested in technical degree programmes. Campaigns launched in the eighties and nineties to get more girls interested in the exact sciences (“Kies Exact”, “Een slimme meid …”) garnered attention but did not have the desired effect. The low student numbers at the time exerted pressure on universities of technology to collaborate more. This is where the idea of a federation originated; it grew from the idea that investment in universities of technology had to be done in a considered, structured manner. The “Meer Betere Bèta’s” (more and better natural scientists) programme and the Technology Pact that followed were necessary for boosting the student numbers. We translated these into the 3TU Technology Sector Plan 2011-2015; with the support of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, this plan allowed us to achieve an enormous increase in student intake. 

Was the co-operation good, right from the start?
Certainly, and still it grew even further. The co-operation was always content-driven, and it remains so. In the beginning, the division of the available funds was still a regular topic of discussion, but these discussions receded into the background as the mutual trust between the member universities grew.

The focus on content is reflected in the way in which we now organise our research. Initially, we carried out research in five centres of excellence, the underlying organisational principle being to form research priority areas. Developing focus and mass in particular research priority areas enables you to achieve higher quality and greater recognisability, which still is the case in the current discipline-oriented sector plans for science and technology. The federation gradually and steadily moved more towards thinking from the point of view of the societal challenges we face. This is well reflected in current research programmes such as the High Tech for a Sustainable Future programme, in which 4TU researchers work on finding concrete solutions on the topics of agriculture and horticulture, our exercise and eating behaviour, health, robotics and a resilient society.

"The universities of technology have the same rational view of the world and are driven by the desire to create things and to seek solutions."

What is the secret to the successful co-operation?
I think it's mainly driven by the fact that the four members have a similar working culture. The universities of technology have the same rational view of the world and are driven by the desire to create things and to seek solutions.

And it's driven by our shared pride in the things we have achieved together, such as DEAN, the network of TU alumni abroad, or 4TU.IMPACT. The latter grew from a discussion between the valorisation directors, who found that they could do far more things together and all it needed was a managerial nod. Many of these kinds of co-operation originated in the workplace, after which management embraced them and provided the necessary budget as required. The realisation grew that strength lies in representing each other, for example in discussions about funding, or in talks with the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy regarding societal and economic impact. A recent realisation was that we do not do this all that much in Europe yet; this led to the formulation of a new ambition right away.

We fully realise that we need to co-operate with other partners in this regard as well. You need to co-operate with other academic domains if you are to be of any use to society; this is becoming increasingly important to the universities of technology and is part of the 4TU strategy for 2020-2025

What do you consider the greatest successes you were involved in during these eight years?
Looking back chronologically, I see a number of really significant things. First, the establishment of the Centre for Engineering Education (CEE). This has grown from being a rough sketch on paper to being a successful centre that is recognised internationally. With support from my colleague Linda Baljeu, Jan van de Veen and Perry den Brok built this centre from its very foundations; this was the stuff of pioneers, and it is really pleasing to see what this rough sketch has now become. A visible example of this project is the innovation map, a rich database full of educational innovations that is well used by people within and beyond the universities.

The second example of success was Wageningen University joining the Federation. When the Federation was established Wageningen was also approached about taking part, but they did not feel the need then. The university had a solid reputation and at the time they considered autonomy important. At a certain point they started receiving questions from the business community that required knowledge of high tech as well as agricultural and nutritional expertise. We entered into substance-driven discussions with them to establish whether we could address these questions more effectively as a foursome. It didn't take us long to answer this question in the affirmative, and I have the impression that everyone still considers the step we took in 2016 a good one.

We also succeeded in putting the issue of funding, which is an important one for the universities of technology, on the political agenda. We were very concerned about whether we would actually be able to train the large numbers of engineers, and the increasing number of student quota were leading to much dissatisfaction in the business community. The government eventually decided to redistribute the available funds between the universities. Unfortunately, this political decision led to tensions between the universities of technology and the general universities for a while. We would much rather have seen extra funds being made available for science and technology, not the funds being taken away from the comprehensive universities. It is important though that we got this put on the agenda. The growth in student numbers and the associated lagging financing are very extreme in the science and technology field.

"This, too, is typical of 4TU: the content that drives researchers and spurs them on continually to seek new funding!"

Finally, I would like to refer again to the HTSF programme I mentioned before. Besides the fact that this programme will yield positive results for society, it is also an ideal instrument for embedding co-operation for the long term. These programmes involve talented senior researchers, so-called tenure track candidates, working in a team on a societal theme. The researchers all start at the same time and they apply for grants together, which results in close communities developing. These kinds of contacts are expected to be lasting ones. This, too, is typical of 4TU: the content that drives researchers and spurs them on continually to seek new funding!

And now: looking ahead. What do you think you're going to miss?
What I think I'll miss are the things that are now coming into bloom. The Sector Plan for Science and Technology Education is currently yielding co-operation between the science faculties and the technology faculties. By working together they can make a greater impact. For example, they are working together to increase capacity in order to train more computer science students and to spread capacity around the country as much as possible. We need computer scientists in increasing numbers for the new professions emerging in Data Science, Artificial Intelligence and Cyber Security.

Besides this, every institution has its own profile and the content of each institution's degree programme varies just a little from that of another institution. If pupils are able to arrive at study choices that are better informed, this will prevent students dropping out or switching to degree programmes outside science and technology. Pupils currently get very little help in this regard. The IT or computer science degree programmes vary so much. Take the Artificial Intelligence field, for example. This might involve learning to build algorithms, but also the language used in software such as SIRI, or how to influence behaviour. Add to this the fact that university education isn't always a better choice than higher professional education. By listening carefully to what a pupil wants, you increase the chance of them ending up in the right place.

What I most certainly will miss too is the follow-up to the Techrede speech. In the Techrede, we show what the political world needs to do to allow rapid innovation to be achieved. The National Growth Fund is a good first step in this direction, but a lot more needs yet to be worked out. I would have liked to stay involved with the follow-up in the run-up to the elections. Fortunately, I will remain closely involved with this subject in my work for the University of Twente.

And so to the last question: will we be seeing you again?
I certainly intend to be seen again. I will be representing the University of Twente in The Hague, among other things. As the University of Twente is part of 4TU, we will certainly need to align our stance on certain topics with that of the three other universities. I will certainly come across many of my 4TU colleagues in my new role!

IJsbrand Haagsma is an engineer from Groningen. After graduating in Applied Mechanics, he started as a researcher at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at TU Delft where he helped develop the wave prediction model SWAN. After a career switch, he became Secretary General of the Faculty of Mechanical, Maritime and Materials Engineering in 2005. Before being appointed Secretary General of the 3TU.Federation in 2012, he was Chair of the Departmental of Materials Science & Engineering for two years. During this period he presided over a restructuring and secured structural involvement of the business community. 

In a voluntary capacity, Haagsma has been a member of the board of the Royal Dutch Rowing Federation (KNRB) for more than 13 years. He derives enormous pleasure from coaching talented rowers. A number of his pupils are currently preparing for their participation in the (postponed) Olympic Games in Tokyo.