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‘Character development ties in perfectly with the aspirational motto of Tilburg University: Understanding society.’

Published: 04th June 2020 Last updated: 27th July 2020

Vincent Wiegerinck, until April 1, 2020 project leader of the Tilburg Educational Profile (TEP), and his successor, Jeroen Kuilman, talk about an important component of TEP: character development in education. What do we mean by character? How should it be integrated into the Bachelor’s programs? What role can lecturers and students play? And also, what effects does distance education have on TEP?

By Annemeike Tan

When the implementation of TEP got underway, it soon became clear that of its three core components – knowledge, skills, character – the third one, character, is the most challenging. How so?

Vincent: ‘Knowledge and to a lesser extent skills are fairly concrete. Character, on the other hand, is a multidimensional notion and that makes it hard to pin down. Another way of putting this is that ‘character’ has a fluid quality to it. There were different views on how we ought to define character. Some feared we would settle on a definition that would be too normative, while others felt that character is closely linked to attitude, and some programs do actively assess attitude. To break the deadlock, representatives of all Schools met to discuss what they did and did not mean by character. The Vice-Deans for Education subsequently deliberated the outcome together and reached a consensus. This culminated in the ‘five elements of character development’: intellectual independence, a critical mindset, social responsibility, scientific responsibility, and entrepreneurship.’

‘Character’ has a fluid quality to it

Jeroen: ‘I like the definition. For me, it reflects two important elements: thinking and acting. Clearly, we aim to educate students as critical and independent thinkers, yet at the same time we are keen for them to take action. In a socially responsible manner.’

What was the next step once the definition issue had been resolved?

Vincent: ‘The next step was for the Schools to make a format-based inventory of how the five elements of character development were already manifested in the curricula of the Bachelor’s programs. The results I set out in a report.’

What were the main findings?

Vincent: ‘Intellectual independence, a critical mindset, and scientific responsibility were most in evidence at all Schools, social responsibility and entrepreneurship less so.’

Jeroen: ‘Intellectual independence, a critical mindset, and scientific responsibility relate to thinking. Most programs have covered these bases, as you would expect in academic education. Writing a thesis is a prime example of exercising an independent, critical mindset. What the inventory showed was that taking action – social responsibility and entrepreneurship – does feature, but that there is room for expansion in this area.’

Vincent: ‘Not in the least because these are the elements Tilburg University aims to display as its signature profile. It ties in perfectly with its aspirational motto: Understanding society.’

Vincent: ‘We also noticed much heterogeneity amongst the Schools as well as amongst the various programs. That has partly to do with the nature of the program concerned. For economics entrepreneurship is a rather more obvious element than it is for other programs. Yet partly it is also a matter of interpreting the various elements. Some define entrepreneurship more closely, that is to say in a strictly economic sense, than others.’

I am keen to push back the culture of mediocrity

Jeroen: ‘To me the element of entrepreneurship is not restricted to starting a business. I think of it more as a personality trait of taking responsibility and control. I am keen to push back the culture of mediocrity, of wait-and-see students sitting on their hands. I would much rather students take more responsibility and show initiative to improve their performance record. And we should help them do that.’

That brings us to the next question: how will the Schools use the inventory?

Vincent: ‘The Schools are now in the process of identifying the effects of the inventory and for each School an action plan will be drawn up. The inventory report contains a number of recommendations. Here’s a prominent one: use the report to critically evaluate the curricula of the programs the School offers. Engage in discussion. Where are the blank spots? How can we fill these? I myself see opportunities for the graduation projects. Why not work more closely with an impact research program that aims to benefit society? We could encourage students to write their thesis on a topic relating to, for example, the circular economy or social responsibility in the judicial system.

Jeroen: ‘As Vice-Dean for Education at TiSEM I would like to accentuate internships, as their focus is more on taking action. We’re already doing this with Business Economics and International Business Administration (IBA), where growing numbers of students are doing internships. I would really like for other programs to join in. I do not seek to intervene in the programs’ learning objectives, but the inventory is quite a good basis for a discussion.’

Vincent: ‘Another recommendation is asking students for feedback. Discuss the findings of the inventory with them. What are their thoughts? What can they themselves do, and what do they want to do, to work on character development as part of their studies as well as in extracurricular activities? The latter category includes activities organized by, for example, student associations and Studium Generale.’

Embed the TEP component of character in the University Teaching Qualification

Jeroen: ‘Another matter of import is that we raise lecturers’ awareness. We can do this by embedding the TEP component of character in the University Teaching Qualification (UTQ) and the Senior University Teaching Qualification. For new lecturers the UTQ is a suitable vehicle for exchanging ideas about character development as well as for planting the seed; lecturers will bear it in mind when they prepare their classes.’

Vincent: ‘There is also the idea to design a labeling system for the programs. In the Study Guide a course label would identify the element a particular course taps into. Not only will this increase awareness amongst students, it is also a tool to answer the most pressing question of prospective students: ‘Why should I choose Tilburg University?’ It palpably visualizes how character development has been integrated into education.’

The corona crisis has created a new reality: in the coming period distance education will be offered on a massive scale. What does this mean for the TEP principles?

Jeroen: ‘In these times it certainly is a challenge to realize certain TEP ideals, but TEP now also holds greater relevance than ever before. To start with the challenge, one of the TEP ideals is interactive, small-scale education and what we now see is that in an online environment it is quite difficult to get interactivity going. In online classes, students often turn off their cameras, which for lecturers means they have to make do without non-verbal contact. They can’t see whether students understand the subject being discussed. And for students, too, the going has got tougher: they are now expected to be more disciplined and self-reliant. The need to come to campus has disappeared. In such an environment it is harder to maintain a connection with students and that does make it more challenging for us to implement certain aspects of TEP.

TEP now also holds greater relevance than ever before

At the same time, that is precisely why TEP is vital to making the connection. PASS comes to mind: mentors are more important than ever to maintain contact with students, to keep them involved. In that way we need to ensure that education retains its small-scale profile. And we need to think hard about how PASS must be adapted to an online environment. I believe that for first-year students especially small-scale PASS activities will have to be organized on campus. TEP is a beautiful vision on education and I wholeheartedly subscribe to it. What should happen now is that it is carried over to online education.’

Let’s wind up. Vincent, you recently handed over to Jeroen. Do you have a final word of advice for him?

Vincent: ‘Persevere! Looking back to the past few years, I remember it wasn’t always easy going and that is not unusual in an intellectual, academic community. I’m very pleased Jeroen will lead the way. As Vice-Dean for Education he is well-placed to connect to all consultative and management bodies whose cooperation is required to make TEP, and character development in particular, a success.

Jeroen: ‘I in turn would like to take this opportunity to thank Vincent for his unwavering dedication to establishing TEP. I immensely respect the significance of what Vincent has achieved in this regard for Tilburg University, pioneering TEP in the IBA program and his subsequent efforts as project leader tasked with implementing TEP throughout the university. He has managed this project – which was anything but an easy task – superbly and I have nothing but praise for his work.’