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Antoinette de Bont about lifelong learning: ‘We are working towards making this our fourth core mission’

Published: 17th April 2023 Last updated: 15th June 2023

Tilburg University is ambitious in its approach to lifelong learning. According to Antoinette de Bont, the driving force behind this initiative, this approach should be both focused and practical. “We start at the basis: a sound customer support process. The rest will follow.”

Sometimes the university is like Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but leaving your alma mater is a different story. If it is up to Tilburg University, it will only become harder. The university would like to see alumni and other former students come back to the campus more often for further education. In fact, it is a bit of a shame that all knowledge is almost exclusively taught to young adults, Antoinette de Bont says. The Dean of the Tilburg School of Social and Behavioral Sciences drives the strategic theme of lifelong learning at Tilburg University. In her experience, there is a great need for knowledge among people in jobs. “Teaching students aged 18 to 25 is our core business. But the knowledge imparted to that group becomes outdated, for instance, as a result of developments in society, legislation, and technology. There is still a lot that you will need to learn to keep up after your Master’s. We want to play a more important role in this. We want to more often share our knowledge with professionals aged between 30 and 55.”

Fourth core mission

That Tilburg University has never fully committed to lifelong learning so far has to do with the way in which universities are funded in the Netherlands. It is aimed at the core tasks of teaching, research, and impact: that is what the government funding is paid towards. However, lifelong learning is not such a primary task. If it is up to the university, that is about to change. De Bont: “We are working towards making this our fourth core mission.” The university does not need to start from scratch: it has the executive leadership program of TIAS Business School to offer. It is a strong brand with lots of experience in lifelong learning. In De Bont’s view, this provides Tilburg University with an excellent starting position. “Their experience is a great benefit to us. The same goes for experiences at the other Schools, for instance, in supporting lifelong learning and with programs with a similar perspective. Apart from TIAS, there are various other initiatives, for instance, for accountants and lawyers, training provided by our People Management Center. Many seeds have already been planted but now it is a matter of making sure that they fall in fertile soil and that sufficient tender loving care is available.”

Antoinette de Bont

We want a well-functioning structure for the client process: how do we approach graduates, how can they register, and how do they pay?

Antoinette de Bont

Sound basis

Since lifelong learning has been chosen as a strategic spearhead, it has quickly gained momentum. De Bont and the steering group on the theme that she chairs have identified all the initiatives for support and training already available. “We asked ourselves the questions: does this still cater to needs and is it something we could elaborate on?”

What needs to be done first is get sound support in place, De Bont states. “That is the basis. We want a well-functioning structure for the client process: how do we approach graduates, how can they register, and how do they pay? We want to get this kind of practical aspects sorted out uniformly and clearly. That will be done by a project manager, who can list the facilities already available and make choices.”

Fertile soil

When these basic things are up and running, it is time to help the various programs across the Schools flourish, the point of departure being that they are productive initiatives, De Bont explains. In her opinion, the most important lesson of TIAS Business School is that only a few ideas will truly bear fruit. “You cannot make a success of everything. There needs to be sufficient interest of the target group and we must be able to break even. We do not need to make a profit, but we do not want to offer programs at a loss.”

A sound practical basis and sufficient training programs on offer are primary conditions for making lifelong learning flourish. In addition, it is essential that it is perceived as part of our lecturers’ jobs, not a sideline. The lecturers who opt to teach these courses and programs need to be recognized and rewarded, as fits the national academic objective of that name.

The programs and courses on offer will meet the learning needs of these organizations as concerns solving important social issues

Future dreams

Lifelong learning links up well with the university’s other strategic objectives. For instance, it would be a welcome addition to impact initiatives, De Bont believes. “In that context, the university collaborates with social partners for whom lifelong learning could be interesting. It is something you could also offer this target group.” She expects that the programs and courses on offer will meet the learning needs of these organizations as concerns solving important social issues. It is precisely in these areas that the need for continuing education is greatest.

De Bont is cautious, though: “Before we indulge in future dreams, it is essential to work to achieve a high quality in both the customer process and the content of the programs first. Only then will students be more likely to find their way back to their alma mater.”

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