Nederlandse universiteiten doen het beter

Nieuws | de redactie
1 mei 2007 | Mede dankzij het selectieve middelbare onderwijs doen de Nederlandse universiteiten het beter op de Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking dan de Amerikaanse, aldus Jan Veldhuis: “All Dutch universities are on the list, and many American universities are not on the list. A matter of system?”

Oud-UU-voorzitter Jan Veldhuis wees daarop bij de viering van 225 jaar Nederlands-Amerikaanse vriendschap. Hij hield daar de Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt-lezing.

Ook zet Veldhuis vraagtekens bij het vermogen van de USA om Nobelprijswinnaars te genereren: “The laureates of the last decades mostly being Americans, are they the product of the American educational system, or are they often foreigners who have been brought to America by the American top institutions? A sure sign of the quality of the system of American higher education?” Dit voert hem tot een scherp geformuleerde vraag: “Depending upon your point of view, America is either a land of opportunity and hope and glory in which genius blossoms in ways that are impossible at home; or a talent sucking vampire that bleeds other countries of their human capacity by wickedly paying more and offering better laboratory facilities”.

Veldhuis constateert al met al een zekere “stagnatie” in de relatie tussen Nederland en Amerika, en roept daarom op tot hernieuwing van de relatie: “It’s time for a new dialogue, a new consultation and if necessary a new confrontation, all in friendship”.


Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt Keynote Lecture

Dutch American Friendship Day Ceremony, Leiden, April 22, 2007

As we mark 225 years of unbroken diplomatic relations between the United States and the Netherlands, we think about ideas embodied in two words : Commemoration and Friendship.

Therefore first some words about Commemoration.

And then more words about Friendship




On the 19th of April 1782 the Republic of the 7 United Provinces recognized the independence of the United States. This year we celebrate the 225th anniversary of this event.

Last Thursday there was a commemoration between  the governments of the USA and the Kingdom of the Netherlands  in the Rolzaal at The Hague. Some, or even many of us were invited and probably present there.

Three days later, today, we –‘ordinary citizens’– gather in the Lorentz Zaal of the Leyden University, in a building where, as president- rector Paul van der Heijden mentioned,  in the past many scholars in the hard sciences have gathered, and where today still scholars gather : lawyers are also scholars.   We commemorate not only 225 years of friendship. Ties that have existed longer, much longer. I will repeat some dates and facts you already learned about, but in this room it is permitted : ‘repetitio est mater studiorum’.

In 1609, Henry Hudson sailed up the river, later named after him, with his ship the Halve Maen. He was commissioned by the Dutch East Indies Company to look for a South West Passage to the Pacific.

New Holland, New Netherlands and  New Amsterdam came in existence.

50 years later, in 1667, they were bartered for Surinam with the English,. Their names have disappeared but other names are part of America today : Staten Island, Harlem, Brooklyn as well as the names of men: Stuyvesant, Van Buren, Roosevelt, Vanderbilt.

And also Hoekstra and Van Hollen…!

I mention again 1609, when the Pilgrims arrived from England in Leiden, but especially also the year 1620, when they having left Leiden.arrived in the New World. These Pilgrims had been influenced by the Dutch and brought Dutch values with them.  I will say more about that later.

And then also, certainly, the year 1782.

In 1773, the colonists in Boston rebelled against the English and after some ten years, in 1782,  it led to the independence of the United States. This independence was soon recognized by nations who were pleased to see this English loss : first  France, second,  the Dutch Republic. But, there are also indications that our Province of Friesland was the very first!

And though national interests and power were important, so also were ideas and values. The insurgents were inspired by France and by the Dutch Republic by  ideas that were  the basis of the Dutch rebellion that via the Union of Utrecht of 1579 and the Act of Abjuration of two years later led to independence in 1588. The right to rise against a ruler ‘turned tyrant’, as the students of the American School just told us so eloquently,  was an idea taken from among others the Frenchman, Jean Bodin. The ideas of Liberty and  Equality of all men were further developed in the seventeenth century by, among others, Descartes, Spinoza and Pierre Bayle, and in the eighteenth century by the philosophers of the Enlightment who had been prominent in France and were a basic  inspiration for the Declaration of Independence.

And subsequently, American independence in his turn became an important source of inspiration for the French Revolution: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.

This brings us to what today is the second important idea:


Friendship exists not only by the grace of common experiences, but also by the grace of common values and ideas.

And these values and ideas have bound us together for centuries:

Equality of all men; our Fundamental Freedoms.

And inter-connected is the belief in the importance of Democracy and Progress, by, among other things, Education and Science.

Friendship also exists thanks to help in difficult times. Great instances, like the United States’ support during the First World War, which was, in fact, largely a European war. And particularly the monumental support during the first true world war, the Second World War. By the massive U.S. support of the European Allies, it was possible to restore freedom and democracy in the world. But, it happened at great expense – of equipment and particularly –the  loss of lives. Almost 300,000 Americans died and almost 700,000 were wounded.

So, it is right that we continue to commemorate, with deep felt respect and great gratitude, now and in the coming years.

And acts of Friendship did not end in 1945. After the War : the Marshall Plan and, especially mentioned here, the Fulbright Program. Both strengthened our ties. We in Europe started preparations for a European Community, a European Union. And together with others we started NATO, the OECD,  and, most importantly, the United Nations with its many useful and indispensable councils, agencies and the International Court. We reconfirmed and refined our common values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights : equality of all men regardless of religion, race, gender, age and sexual inclination.

Fundamental freedoms: Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Expression, Individual Autonomy – the definition of who we are and who we strive to be.

Friendship exists by the grace of respect for each other’s individuality and this includes differences of opinion.   And Friendship exists by the grace of recognizing, discussing and dealing with mutual tensions. And there have been tensions in the Dutch-American relations during the past decades: Indonesia and New Guinea, Vietnam and Latin America; trade relations and questions about the deployment of missiles on Dutch soil. But it has always been possible to make our tensions manageable and to solve specific problems.

Today’s our relations are not without problems, and not only by the issue of Iraq. The tensions are deeper.

The Netherlands are a part of the European Union. No doubt the development of the EU is a unique historic event. Jeremy Rifkin, the author of  ‘The European Dream’, in an essay on Europe : “This vast cultural entity has its own founding documents and hopes for the future. It also has its own empowering myth. Although it is still in its adolescence, the European Dream is the first transnational vision”. 1) A construction that contributes to the welfare, well being, peace and security of the member states, and  of Europe and even of the world. At the same time, there is a danger that the EU will become too inward, and thereby less dynamic and open – a  Fortress Europe. Many member states, among them The Netherlands, have problems with the character of the changes taking place in our societies: the relationship between the public sector and the market, the arrival of migrants, the freedoms of religion and expression, and the limits of them. Many inhabitants experience as threatening the ever faster development of science and technology and with it,  information and communication. Acquired positions and certainties are affected, challenged. This nurtures conservatism, a conservatism expressed in forms of populism, intolerance and the like.

Many people believe that such conservatism is also threatening present day America, more than ever before. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War the United States was the uncontested number one world power: in science and technology, economy, finance and, as a result,  also militarily. Old wisdoms say: that power corrupts and makes arrogant, that power makes people conservative. Who possesses power, and the welfare and prestige that goes with it, wants to keep it, especially when its possession is under threat.  But such a threat is a kind of law of nature: the possession of power not only causes the envy of others, but  also opens their eyes to  possibilities that until then were unknown.  Particularly as the owner of all these possessions shows them, and exports and exploits them.

Today. new economies are arising, in Europe and especially in Asia, but also in Latin America and even in Africa. They want their ‘place under the sun’, as Germany wanted it 100 years ago. And did not get : we all know the consequences. These new economies threaten those  in top positions, those who want to keep and preserve their power.  And who also know that keeping and preserving the established positions of their electorate, serves to preserve their own positions. Instinctive instruments such as traditional morals and national pride, and also the low price of food and of gas then are powerful electoral weapons.

Fortress Europe and World Power America, however, will have to share and also to share with other countries. They will have to insure that the welfare and well being of other countries grow, preferably faster than in Europe and in America, in order to let them catch up and thus diminish large inequalities. They must not create constraints such as in international trade, but create a policy that demonstrates that they are prepared to share. And this not out of altruism, but out of pure self-interest: share or perish.

The long lasting friendship between the United States and Europe, particularly between the United States and the Netherlands, offers many possibilities, through dialogue, consultation and even confrontation  to enhance this necessary policy of sharing. Both Europe, in a more distant past,  as well as after World War Two, and the United States from its historic position as the Land of Hope and Glory and also by its actions during and after World War Two, are characterized to a degree by a policy of sharing.

But now,  there appears to be stagnation. It’s time for a new dialogue, a new consultation and if necessary a new confrontation, all in friendship.

Let me now limit myself to one topic that has been debated for years: the organization of the economy, both our own and the world economy. Should there be more commitment to the public or to the private sector? Europe knows, after the collapse of communism, that the market mechanism is indispensable. The United States knows, since 1929, that government can and must play an essential and indispensable role. But how do we organize our economy, for instance in the four areas that in Europe traditionally have been organized by the public sector: social security, housing, health care and education?

Vigorous discussions are raging, both in the United States and in Europe. Dialogue, consultation and confrontation cannot be promoted enough in the search for newer and better balances.

Let me restrict myself even further :  to Education and Science and that only, between the United States and the Netherlands. With my background, you will allow me this restriction. It was also the field of Jan Willem Schulte Nordholt, the pioneer of the American Studies in the Netherlands and the motor behind the Bicentennial of 1982. This address is dedicated to him.

I am restricting myself to an apparently simple, but in essence, complicated subject.

Complicated because the ideals and interests of individuals and groups are intricately connected with it.

How do we organize our education? Particularly secondary education, for many the crossroads for further studies and careers. And how do we organize higher education which is of such pivotal importance for economy and society, now and in the future – the knowledge economy and the knowledge society.

Also here the choices we make are essential: do we opt for a public organization, as we have done in the Netherlands, or for a mixed public and private organization as has been done in the United States?

And the structure is essential too.  In secondary education, do we want a comprehensive five year high school, which means the same type of school for everybody, although  differences of quality may be large, even dramatically large, also as a result of private funding? Or do we want a layered system both as to level and duration – four, five or six years – from simple career to university preparatory programs – VMBO, HAVO and VWO :  four years of VMBO, five years of HAVO and six years VWO, leading to more than 50% of the students going to the VMBO, 25% to the HAVO and only 18% to the VWO.  Schools with the same quality all through the country, but with a rather cruel early selection at the age of twelve to fourteen.

And then, what are the consequences for higher and scientific education and research?

Will strict selection, as is the case in the United States, result, percentage-wise, in fifty to one hundred  good or very good, even top schools but also  a majority of lesser, average and sometimes bad schools?

Or will no selection but automatic admission on the basis of the secondary school certificate, in broad terms :  from the VMBO to the MBO, from the HAVO to the HBO,  and from the VWO to the University, result in the best qualifications in the country?  A correct confirmation of the rather cruel selection that took place so early in life?

In the United States the system has resulted in true top education, attractive for students (and for teachers) from the whole world. They select the best minds, nationally and internationally, based on merit, on intellectual merit. However, after reading ‘The Chosen’ by Jerome Karabel one learns how ‘The big Three’ have struggled with this and are still struggling. In the past, there were problems with the admission of the Jewish students and sometimes of Catholics as well as of minorities and women. They were a threat to the “so-called” Wasp character, the sons of the elite, and thereby to obtaining sufficient funds from alumni and other contributors. This last factor still affects admission to a large extent. 2)

In the Netherlands the system leads to insufficient incentive for top performances: a ‘zesjescultuur’, the Dutch word for being satisfied with barely passing grades, and to too few students in the sciences and technology. To belong to the early selection of 18% VWO students apparently offers an insufficient challenge for further excellence. The various schools hardly differ except in traditions. And this cannot be otherwise in a system where by law there is equal funding of the universities: the same amounts for the students, the same pay for teachers and professors, largely the same funding for research. There have been attempts to create differentiation: the laudable binding study advice and the experiment of selection at the gate here at Leiden University, the University College of Utrecht University with its selection just behind the gate. Notwithstanding the success of this last approach and the attempts to follow the example elsewhere, this is not an essential change of the system. And, the question is: should we want such an essential change?

There are still major differences, too major, between the qualities of the universities and particularly between the research institutes in the Netherlands and the United States. On the most independent ranking list of the world, the Chinese List from Jiao Tong University of Shanghai, that lists the 500 best universities in the world, the first fifty places almost all are taken by American and five English universities. Continental Europe is solely represented by ETH Zurich (nr. 27), Utrecht University (nr. 40), Université de Paris (nr. 45) and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (nr. 48).

But .. all Dutch universities are on the list, and many American universities are not on the list. A matter of system? 3)

Nobel prizes have been awarded predominantly to America for the last decades, and almost always to scientists attached to a top university over there. On the whole since the beginning of the Nobel Prize awarding in 1901 the Netherlands are just above the West European average, also thanks to the large contribution of the university in this city, largely at the beginning of the last century. But .. the laureates of the last decades mostly being Americans, are they the product of the American educational system, or are they often foreigners who have been brought to America by the American top institutions? A sure sign of the quality of the system of American higher education?

The last time that Dutch nationals received the Nobel prize was in 1999:  Martinus Veltman and Gerard ‘t Hooft for physics. The Economist published the following commentary: ‘Taken together these four prize-winners say something interesting about the state of modern science. None of them was born in America, but three of them work or worked there. [..] Only Dr.‘t Hooft, a fellow countryman of Dr. Veltman, has cleaved to his native land. He is still at the University of Utrecht. Depending upon your point of view, America is either a land of opportunity and hope and glory in which genius blossoms in ways that are impossible at home; or a talent sucking vampire that bleeds other countries of their human capacity by wickedly paying more and offering better laboratory facilities’. 4)

A good system or a matter of money, of power? Power to share?

A complicated issue.

I ask questions. I advance theses. I submit hypotheses.

I do not give answers. It is very difficult to give the right answers. The answers are so dependent on circumstances.
Because I touched complicated issues, that have to be discussed, along the proper line :

definition of the issue/problem, analysis, arguments pro and contra a certain approach/solution, and then a balanced choice.

In these issues it is useful, indeed necessary to hold a dialogue, to consult and/or even to confront. In the interest of our two nations but also in the interest of the ‘state of the world’. Between two nations linked in friendship for 225 years this would be possible. In the spirit of Emerson: ‘A friend is a person with whom I can be sincere. Before him, I can think aloud.’

We have many common views, we share many values. We also have many organizations who promote this, for instance the organizations who have organized this day under the inspired guidance of Roberta Enschedé. But also various others. I don’t want and cannot name them all but I will make an exception for organizations that are active in the field of education and science.

The Netherlands- America Foundation, created ‘to maintain and strengthen the special ties of friendship between the Netherlands and the United States, primarily through educational and cultural exchanges’, which especially these last years has been very successful to collect funds to expand its activities, and of course the Fulbright Program which also in the Dutch-American relations has made such an important contribution ‘to promote international friendship and understanding’.

I also mention the Roosevelt Study Center in Middelburg, more and more the center of ‘American Studies’ in the Netherlands, and busily preparing a history of 400 years of Dutch-American relations, to be published in 2009; the presentation will be part of the activities of the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation which will prepare the celebration in 2009 of 400 years a History of the Netherlands and America.

It is appropriate to commemorate our long lasting friendship as often and as intensively as possible.

It is good to do so looking exactly to the future, openly, constructively and critically, remembering again the words of Emerson : “A friend is a person with whom I can be sincere”.

It was a privilege and a pleasure to address you at this commemoration of Dutch-American Friendship.  I thank you for your attention. Please give a hand to the organizers of this day. They deserve much respect and praise for their initiative.  Thank you.


1. Rifkin, Jeremy, quotation in Science Guide of  18 April 2007.

He wrote ‘The European Dream’, New York 2004.

2. Karabel, Jerome, The Chosen, The hidden history of admission and wexclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, Boston New York 2005.

3. Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University,  Academic Ranking of World Universities 2006, Top 500 World University,  Shanghai 2006.

4. The Economist, 16 October 1999, pg.114 and 117.

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