Vicedecaan Jeroen Kuilman

"It is good for students to start thinking outside of existing structures" - Jeroen Kuilman

'We involve students in everything we do'

Students should take charge of their careers, according to Vice Dean Jeroen Kuilman. A discussion about the quality of education, lecturing during corona, and studying abroad. “Of course, it’s also great to travel, to meet new people, and to party with them.”

Text: Jim Jansen /  Image:Bob Bronshoff

There is a serene peace and quiet as we walk up Universiteitslaan at the end of May. On this sun-drenched day, the campus is deserted. The AH-To-Go is closed, the tables and chairs at Starbucks are covered with a thick layer of dust and students are few and far between.

Due to corona, Vice Dean Jeroen Kuilman has also exchanged his office in the Koopmans building for a home office in Breda. He is visibly enjoying walking past the buildings again after an absence of eight weeks. “Hey, that’s new,” he says when he sees that the stairs along Universiteitslaan are painted in rainbow colors.

Although he does his work somewhere else, part of what he does has remained the same, with corona as a major added dossier. “I try to keep mornings free for larger things that need my attention,” he says. “I read urgent e-mails, write documents, and from half past twelve meetings start via Skype and Zoom. The vast majority of my work consists of talking. With people in education, other vice deans, students, professors, and many others with the ultimate goal of improving education.”

I soon discovered a passion for education

Do you still have time to do research or to teach?

“In my current position, research time is scarce, and I teach very occasionally. I lecture on the subject of innovation management to people from the business world. And that gives me a lot of energy. It’s great to discuss topics that are close to your heart with students. When I started as a researcher, it was part of my job to teach courses; at the beginning, it was quite exciting. But soon I discovered a passion for education.”

How does high-quality teaching work?

“One of the most important things is that, as a professor, you have to provide structure. Students want to know where they stand and what is expected of them. It is lethal to suddenly move the goalposts halfway through a course, for example by changing the set-up of the exam. You take them by the hand, from a to b. Compare it to taking people on a trip. It’s not smart to change the destination halfway through.”

What have you learned from the corona crisis?

“Needless to say, we’ve come out of our existing ways of thinking. We have been talking for years about offering lectures online, but again and again this met with resistance. Students wanted it, but for lecturers the barrier was difficult to cross. Now we were forced to do it. This also applies to online exams. We’ve never had to do that before.”

The bond between students and between student and university remains extremely important

Do you think things have changed permanently because of the virus?

“I hope so. I also don’t think we should go back to the situation before 1 March 2020. We had lectures with five hundred students at a quarter to nine in the morning. Some got up early to travel from Zeeland or Limburg to Tilburg. Isn’t it better if lectures like that, with limited interaction between student and lecturer, take place online?

On the other hand, of course, it’s good for them to be here occasionally, especially for smaller, more interactive gatherings. Because of corona, we view our forms of education differently and we are studying what we do and do not allow to take place on campus. Of course, the bond between students and between student and university remains extremely important.”

How is TiSEM doing?

“Very well. Many of our study programs score well in the National Student Survey and the Selection Guide for Higher Education. These are rankings that indicate how study programs are valued compared to comparable programs in the Netherlands. Students give us high scores because the quality of education is high, and we have many good professors here.

In addition, compared to the Randstad conurbation, education here in Tilburg is on a slightly smaller scale. We involve students in everythingmwe do. They are very active in study program committees and the Faculty Council, and we ask for feedback that we actually use. If, for example, we want to change the courses within a study program, we won’t do this without taking the input of students into account.”

“Understanding society” is the slogan you use to recruit new students.

“Certainly. Our university is very socially oriented. In our curriculum, we focus on corporate social responsibility. We also have a sustainability center that researches this, and at the Zero Hunger Lab we try to find solutions to the world food crisis.”

This slogan fits in seamlessly with the three pillars: knowledge, skills, and character.

“We’ve always been a research university; that’s ‘knowledge’ pillar. In our education program, we pay increasing attention to skills needed to do well in the labor market. We teach students to work together in teams and teach them social skills, IT knowledge and negotiation skills; that is the ‘skills’ pillar.

In terms of ‘character’, we try not to be too pedantic and normative. It’s about thinking and doing; we want to teach students to have a critical attitude and to think independently. Students must take control of their careers. First here at the university and later in a company or their own business. That is why it’s not only about the practical transfer of knowledge, but also about things such as philosophy and business ethics.”

Because of corona, we view education differently

Entrepreneurship is the common thread in your own career. What is so great about entrepreneurship?

“You’re taking steps to create something new. You’re deviating from the status quo and creating something that didn’t exist before. I think that’s great. The process of thinking, creating, and refining is fantastic. Eventually, an idea that originated in your mind becomes reality. It’s extremely satisfying.”

You will have the same satisfaction when the new study program starts in September 2020.

“The BSc Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation did exist at the higher professionnal level (HBO), but not at the university level. We want to introduce students to entrepreneurship and offer them a study program that prepares them for a job in SMEs or for starting their own business.

Together with colleagues such as James Small, director of the Tilburg Center of Entrepreneurship, we have been thinking about this program for years and it has slowly taken shape. More and more people were enthusiastic, we received the support of the Board of Governors, and the Municipality of Tilburg was also involved.

Two hundred students have already enrolled, and they have their own building here on campus. They will learn everything about business administration, marketing, finance, strategy, and planning. In addition, they will work on projects with the Tilburg business community. Things they learn here at lectures, they will immediately be able to put into practice in their projects.”

You yourself left Tilburg several times to teach in Hong Kong and Moscow.

“Hong Kong came my way and I stayed there for four years. A fascinating region. The meeting place between East and West with a lot of British influence. I found the mishmash interesting, as well as the contradictions.

On the one hand, you have the business center with its New York character that goes on twenty-four hours a day. But if you get on the bus, you are in beautiful nature with white beaches and palm trees in twenty minutes.

Moscow was different. I worked at the state university, and ‘business’ is a dirty word there. The students mainly associated it with corruption. It was rather complicated explaining my theories about entrepreneurship.”

It is good for students to start thinking outside of existing structures

Do you advise students to go abroad for a while

“Definitely. It is good for them to get to know a different culture in a different environment. To see that a country and a city are organized differently, both socially and economically, and that not everything is a matter of course. It is good for them to start thinking outside of existing structures. And, it is also great to travel, to meet new people, and to party with them.”

As Vice Dean, you have a busy job and you’re always “on”. How do you relax?

“I have a boat on the Sloterplas lake in Amsterdam, and, on the water, I feel like I’m on vacation and I can forget all the stress. I come from a family of bargemen, several uncles and aunts are in inland shipping and water is in my DNA. It gives me the ultimate feeling of freedom.”

This article was previously published in New Scientist Education Special TiSEM.

Jeroen Kuilman