Interview with Jan van Iersel in ScienceGuide


Jan van Iersel was interviewed for ScienceGuide. The interview with his views on the developments in Dutch higher professional education sciences was published on 26 March.

See the Interview (in Dutch) with Jan van Iersel in ScienceGuide. The translation of the article can be found below.

ScienceGuide is a platform for higher education, science, and the knowledge sector.


Higher Education Needs a Balanced Binary System

Interview | by Klaas-Wybo van der Hoek

March 26, 2021 | “There are still steps to be taken before higher professional education is actually emancipated from education at research universities,” says Jan van Iersel. He is chairman of the board of VHL University of Applied Sciences (VHL), and he emphatically advocates for the introduction of professional doctorate programmes. He also believes that educational institutions should pay more attention to the learning performance of boys.

“When reflecting upon the situation of higher professional education (Hoger Beroepsonderwijs, abbreviated as HBO), I see a sector that is in the middle of an emancipatory process,” says Jan van Iersel, director of VHL.

Van Iersel has been working in HBO for decades: first as a teacher and director at Windesheim and the VU Windesheim partnership, later as a director of NHL and the merged university of applied sciences NHL Stenden. For several years he has been working at the most sustainable university of applied sciences in the Netherlands, VHL.

Emancipation of higher professional education 

“When reflecting upon the situation of HBO, I see a sector that is in the middle of an emancipatory process,” says Van Iersel. “HBO is well on its way to becoming a mature form of higher education. Today, research almost constitutes a full-fledged part of the activities of universities of applied science, and the unidimensional offerings of the Bachelor’s programme have also become more varied with Master’s and Associate degrees.”

Van Iersel believes that a third cycle, namely the Professional Doctorate (PD) with the associated ius promovendi, is necessary for the further emancipation of higher professional education. “Once it has been introduced, we will have a full-grown higher education system with the option of obtaining a doctorate in both scientific and higher professional education,” he feels. “I now see our lecturers obtaining their PhD at universities. It takes them a lot of effort to make the connection with professional practice. In a PD track, this professional practice will take a central position, as in the entire HBO.” 

VHL's chairman of the board strongly emphasises the development of PD. Why is that? “At an international level, it is necessary for higher professional education and research university education to present themselves well. Although the Dutch structure of higher education is of a decent standard, it is not yet done developing: without PD, HBO still remains a somewhat flawed form of higher education. Both the presentation to foreign countries and the domestic knowledge climate will benefit from the introduction of a PD. Professional practice encounters questions that require scientific reflection and research. The PD is useful and necessary for that.”


Van Iersel knows from experience that quite a few of the current problems in HBO have been going on for years. The results from education are a good example of this. “It is true that I am not very positive about that,” says Van Iersel. “The grades seem to be rising somewhat, but we certainly cannot be satisfied with them yet. For different groups, such as students of secondary vocational education (MBO) and boys, the grades really are not good. Even though we’ve actually been putting a lot of effort into it for a long time. Furthermore, various ministers have made agreements on performance and quality with the sector and individual institutions. In all fairness, however, one must conclude that the results of all those efforts are not in proportion to the invested energy, attention, and resources.” 

According to Van Iersel, people working in HBO should therefore wonder whether they are on the right track. He himself tends to approach the issue of the results from a different angle. “Let’s put the student’s development process at the centre. Give the students the space they need to develop. Let them find out for themselves whether the study programme suits them. Do not set a standard in advance and use student counselling accordingly,” recommends the director.

In that scenario, a higher education institution should not be judged on the figures for its results, but on the quality of the guidance and supervision. One could judge institutions on the success of a student after a longer period of time: for example six or seven years,” according to Van Iersel, “but students can initially decide very well for themselves about study and personal development.” 

He believes that institutions do have a duty to motivate and retain their students. The director would like to see more attention paid to the target group of boys. “They perform more poorly, and they almost disappear from different study programmes. They have to be approached in a way that suits them. Our didactic and pedagogical approach will therefore have to vary more depending on the target group.” 

Accessibility, selection, and internationalisation 

Every now and then questions about internationalisation arise within higher education. VHL has a strong international orientation and also encounters those questions. For Van Iersel the answer is clear: “Higher education, in any case modern higher education, is internationally oriented. The Dutch “human capital agenda” will also benefit from this. Furthermore, most students we train for the sectors of sustainable agriculture, area development, animal management, soil and water issues, and food rely on the international market. It is therefore necessary for our students to be involved in this international and intercultural orientation. This simply works best in an international class room. How many foreign students can you admit for this? My guess is half of them.”

Making education more flexible 

Van Iersel is a passionate advocate of making education more flexible. However, in “De staat van het onderwijs” (the state of education), the annual report from the Inspectorate of Education, some concerns in this regard are being raised. For example, it is difficult for students to find their way to a diploma in the myriad of roads opened up by the increased flexibility, and examination boards consider it difficult to guarantee quality.

“The inspectorate is right about that,” says Van Iersel. “Let’s start with the goal of making education more flexible. We want more people from different groups to be able to take part and succeed in higher education. That works, since we are reaching new groups. Flexible education offers a solution for people with jobs and families.” The organisation, communication, and supervision must be properly coordinated in this process. The administration also seems to be more intensive in the case of flexible education. However, according to Van Iersel, that should not be a problem. “Flexibility does not come naturally,” he says. 

Despite the difficulties, the director believes that it is possible to make education more flexible. And concerns about the quality of flexible education are not going to shake his confidence. “The educational results of traditional and flexible routes are the same, so flexibility and quality do coexist,” he says. “The diplomas for a classical and a flexible route are therefore the same. Those two things can coexist very well.” 

“Green education” to the Ministry of Economic Affairs 

Until a few years ago, the green universities of applied sciences fell under the responsibility of the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The transition from that ministry to the ministry of Education, Culture and Science was disputed by “green education” to the courts. Ultimately, the transition did take place.

“That takes some getting used to for the green institutions,” says Van Iersel. “As a newcomer to ‘green education’, it is striking to me that the green institutions are closely involved with each other. They barely give the ‘grey’ ones a second chance. That will definitely change. That institutional environment has now changed for us, and the social challenges demand cooperation between green and grey universities of applied sciences.”

Working towards a balanced binary system

What would Van Iersel like to see changed in higher education and his own university of applied sciences? Once again, the director mentions the emancipation of HBO and a different way of thinking about the results. “Our research must be treated in the same way as that of education at research universities, including the third cycle, the ius promovendi and the funding. Then we can really work from a balanced binary system. We must also shift to a different approach to the results. Student growth: that’s what it’s all about. It’s not about the grades. And certainly not about the checklists.”