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"Why universities should be run by students"

Only recently, Elisabeth de Vijlder, Mélanie Droogleever Fortuyn, Lennart van de Velde and Sarah Roediger were appointed as University Innovation Fellows. By participating in the Stanford programme, they will contribute to the entrepreneurial climate at the University of Twente. In an opinion article they make some suggestions for change.
 

"Why universities should be run by students"   

Universities are the building blocks of our knowledge economy. Traditionally, universities have been places where knowledge is produced: both new knowledge, in the form of research, and knowledge embodied by graduates. These graduates would be even more successful at applying their knowledge in society if they had received more opportunities to do so during their studies. An opportunity beneficial to both students, universities and societies would be to let students run their own university.

Transforming knowledge into socially relevant products goes beyond inventing, designing and producing new products. It’s also about recognizing society’s demands for new solutions and the need for continuous feedback from target groups. Something that entrepreneurs are particularly skilled at is turning knowledge into products that appeal to a wide audience. Most students have not quite reached that level yet. It is therefore vital for universities to not only pursuit knowledge transfer to students, but to also provide them with the opportunities to explore their entrepreneurial side. How can we achieve that?

The two most important ingredients necessary for students to get in touch with entrepreneurship are a source of motivation and a playground where they can steadily increase their entrepreneurial experience in the course of their university careers.University Innovation Fellows students

The two most important ingredients necessary for students to get in touch with entrepreneurship are a source of motivation and a playground where they can steadily increase their entrepreneurial experience in the course of their university careers. For students the source of inspiration may be personal, e.g. as a means for personal development and building a professional network, or it may be ideological, such as the desire to solve social challenges. In order to be a successful entrepreneur, being confident in one’s capabilities and the willingness to take risks is imperative. For that reason, it’s important to offer students a ‘playground’ in which they can enhance their confidence and skills.

Let’s use this framework to analyse our own university: the University of Twente (UT). The university is well-known for its high-levels of activism. There are large numbers of students who devote their time and efforts to enhance study programmes, sports facilities and cultural workshops. This is an excellent first learning environment for a large group of students. On the other side of the entrepreneurial spectrum , the University also offers students a variety of opportunities to help them start their own business, in cooperation with local businesses and governments. A select group of students has had the intrinsic confidence and motivation to take the plunge, resulting in success stories such as Booking.com and Thuisbezorgd.nl. There’s a substantially wider pool of students who are able to reach these heights.

At present, talented students who are active in the social and political life of the university feel it’s still quite a leap to go from there to starting your own company. The University of Twente can bridge this gap by giving students the option of gaining more experience and boosting their confidence.

Students can set up new study areas, design promotional material, manage university buildings and much moreUniversity Innovation Fellows students

This is why we strongly suggest to have the University run by students. By giving students the opportunity to gain experience in a wide range of its activities, the university creates learning environments that offer entrepreneurial experience while spending less on human resources. Students can set up new study areas, design promotional material, manage university buildings and much more. Entrusting students with these responsibilities is part of a number of successful University of Twente initiatives in which students have been allowed to take the lead.

We’ll continue with an example. Student employees of a medical skills lab are responsible for a training component that all Dutch vascular surgeons are required to take. These students offer vascular surgical residents a two-day practical training course in endovascular surgery using advanced simulation equipment. They are also working on creating simulation-based training programmes for emergency medicine doctors, to help them assess the severity of emergency situations and determine a course of action. An inspiring example of how students are capable of leveraging the available equipment and knowledge at their university for the immediate benefit of society.

In order to expand on this concept and introduce student workers all across university it is vital that the university puts their full trust in them by giving them major responsibilities.

What are the benefits of a student-run university? Our aim is to establish a Dutch Silicon Valley through the powerful combination of a university that is firmly rooted in society and populated by confident student entrepreneurs. At the US Stanford University, the heart of Silicon Valley, there is a strong focus on knowledge and entrepreneurship. The university is commonly praised as model for Technology Transfer with companies such as Google, HP and SnapChat being founded by Stanford University students. Our universities can reach equal acclaim if they identify and empower their greatest asset, their students.

This opinion article has been written by Elisabeth de Vijlder , Mélanie Droogleever Fortuyn, Lennart van de Velde and Sarah Roediger, University Innovation Fellows (a Stanford programme) at the University of Twente. It has been published (in Dutch) in the national newspaper FD.

Laurens van der Velde
Press relations (available Mon-Fri)