A working visit to the UK: exchanging best practices in Science and Education

From 1-3 November 2022, Dutch Minister for Education, Culture and Science, Mr Robbert Dijkgraaf, visited London for a two-day working visit. 

Over the two days, Minister Dijkgraaf visited South Bank Colleges, Queen Mary University, and UCL. He discussed public engagement with the NCCPE and other British stakeholders. He also had the opportunity to exchange thoughts about the latest developments and policy best practices with policy directors and the UK Department for Education and his counterpart Minister George Freeman at the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

Education and Science Attaché Laura van Voorst Vader tells us more and reflects on the goals and outcomes of this visit.

Min Robbert Dijkgraaf visit to South Bank Colleges' Lambeth College, Clapham.
Image: Dutch Embassy UK
Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf visit to South Bank Colleges, Clapham

Why did Minister Dijkgraaf visit the UK?

Just as scientists and researchers work on the latest developments in physics, mathematics or psychology by collaborating with colleagues around the globe, Minister Dijkgraaf believes in exchanging best practices across borders to tackle the common challenges in education and science policy.  

The Netherlands and the UK have world-class education and science systems. However, to ensure our education, science and research systems remain strong, supportive of the students within the education system, and relevant to changing labour markets, it is important to keep learning and developing new ideas. 

Minister OCW Robbert Dijkgraaf
Image: ©Dutch Embassy UK / Dutch Embassy UK
Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf on a working visit to London, Minister for Education, Culture and Science (OCW).

As North Sea Neighbours, the UK and the Netherlands share a significant relationship spanning centuries of trade and investment, exchange of ideas in academia, art and design, and close alliances in defence of liberty.

Consequently, both nations face similar challenges today in developing their education, science and research systems and policy. The UK is a perfect partner to learn from and exchange ideas with.

The scope of the visit focused on further education, student well-being, the recognition of academic talent, and science communication. These are high priorities in the Netherlands, ensuring a constructive and timely visit. 

The Netherlands is one of the leading countries for vocational education. What makes Lambeth College special to visit?

The Dutch labour market is growing tighter and tighter. In the second quarter of 2022, there were 143 vacancies per 100 job seekers (CBS): the demand for professionals is very high. We are facing some huge challenges regarding climate change, energy, health care and housing, the solutions to which require a skilled workforce. Vocational education is an essential element of the Netherlands' plans to tackle these challenges. 

This is why the Minister spoke with students, teachers & administrators at Lambeth College during a visit to the new South Bank Colleges campus in Clapham. 

South Bank Colleges is one of the first in the UK to offer the new T Level courses inspired by the Dutch further education model (‘MBO’, in Dutch). The Minister was keen to hear how this new educational pathway could strengthen the connection between vocational education and the labour market. A further point of interest was the close cooperation promoted by South Bank between education and (local) business; the Netherlands finds this kind of collaboration key to keeping our vocational education innovative and challenging, and it was great to share best practices. 

Min OCW at South Bank Colleges Lambeth College campus
Image: ©Dutch Embassy UK / Dutch Embassy UK

Throughout the visit to the college, the shared passion for developing technical training and further education opportunities for young people in subjects such as software development, engineering, and nursing was obvious. Just like South Bank Colleges, the Netherlands wants to stimulate retraining and further training to create sustainable employability and a labour market that is focused on skills.

However, the discussions at Lambeth – and the tour around the campus – brought several shared challenges to light, including the perceived lack of value of vocational education and technical training. According to Minister Dijkgraaf, there should be greater social appreciation for vocational education. With his colleague, Minister Wiersma for Primary and Secondary Education, he will develop a program for the revaluation and repositioning of vocational education.

We have been inspired by several best practices, such as how South Bank Colleges are opening a new, high-profile campus for their technical students and their close integration and collaboration with South Bank Schools and London South Bank University to provide a smooth educational pathway.

In the Netherlands and the UK, an increasing number of students wrestle with (mental) health issues. What can the UK and Netherlands learn from each other about how best to support students?

The mental well-being of young adults (and students in particular) has become a serious subject of concern in the Netherlands, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation. 

The Netherlands looks especially towards the UK as one of the leading countries (together with Australia and Canada) for supporting student well-being. The Minister hoped to learn from the British ‘whole-school' approach and other experiences and policies in the UK.

Robbert Dijkgraaf visit to QMUL
Image: ©Dutch Embassy UK / Dutch Embassy UK
Min Robbert Dijkgraaf visit to QMUL, hearing about student lead initiatives to support students' (mental) health.

Queen Mary University of London, a Russell Group university, is ranked top in the UK for student mobility and is home to a hugely diverse student population. At its campus in East London, we heard from staff and students about their approach to students' well-being, from holistic well-being guidelines and specialised hubs for support to student-led initiatives. 

Queen Mary University's focus on prevention, as well as support, is an inspiration for policies the Netherlands is looking to implement. For these policies, the Minister has allocated an investment of 13 million pounds (€15 mln.) over the next two years, after which the results will be evaluated to see if a structural investment is warranted.

On a government-to-government level, it was valuable to exchange experiences in successfully implementing a positive well-being approach. Looking forward, we would like to explore how the UK and the Netherlands can work together on this topic, from several perspectives.

Image: ©Dutch Embassy UK / Dutch Embassy UK

Another focus area of the Minister's visit was public engagement and science communication. Why is this topic such a priority for the Minister?

The Covid-19 pandemic turned the spotlight on a global discussion about public (mis-)trust in science. As part of a growing focus on how to bring science and society closer together, Minister Dijkgraaf has set out plans to establish a new centre for science communication in the Netherlands in the next year. 

Robbert Dijkgraaf on panel at Royal Institution
Image: ©Dutch Embassy in UK / Dutch Embassy in UK

Whilst in London, Minister Dijkgraaf spoke with the directors of the National Coordination Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE) in Bristol. The successes and lessons learned over the last 14 years of the existence of the NCCPE provide valuable input for the Minister. Furthermore, the expertise that Sophie Duncan and Paul Manners, Directors of the NCCPE, have in the field of Public Engagement makes them valuable sparring partners.

They then continued the lively discussion on the benefits, challenges and roles of public engagement during a panel discussion hosted at the Royal Institution. 

Is science communication only the responsibility of established scientists?

Should public engagement be restricted to what we know for a fact to be true?

These questions - and more - were discussed by the panel with the Minister, Sophie Duncan and Paul Manners, joined by Katherine Mathieson (director at the Royal Institution) and young Dutch researcher Milou van Poppel. Though the panel members did not always agree with some of the statements they were presented with – or with each other – it was clear that public engagement and science communication are vital elements for education and science systems to get right. 

The UK and Netherlands have a long history of scientific collaboration. How can we work together to modernise the system of recognition and rewards in academia to continue to attract world-class academic talent and research?

To a certain extent, the success of the Netherlands’ recognition and rewards policy is dependent on a similar cultural shift in international academic circles. This illustrates the global and collaborative nature of academia and science. The Netherlands and the UK share the broader ambition to improve the essential preconditions that guarantee a healthy culture for our scientists.  

Dutch universities, university medical centres, research institutes and research funders have worked together to create a system that enables the diversification of career paths; acknowledges individual and team performances; emphasises quality of work over quantitative results; encourages open science, and encourages high-quality academic leadership. 

Min OCw bezoek aan UCL
Image: ©Dutch Embassy UK / Dutch Embassy UK

Before taking the train back to the Netherlands, there was a final meeting at UCL. The Minister was there to exchange best practices in the recognition and reward of all types of academic talent and diversifying career paths. 

In the Netherlands, we see early career academics face several challenges due to uncertain career paths and high work pressure. Part of the Dutch approach to recognition and reward includes creating space for alternate career paths. The Minister was interested to hear more about the Professorial Teaching Fellowship, a program that UCL developed in response to this career path uncertainty. The adoption of a broader definition of excellence in a highly regarded academic setting such as UCL, focusing not only on research and teaching but also on civic roles, public engagement and economic impact, was also discussed.

Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf with Dutch students at UCL
Image: ©Dutch Embassy UK / Duth Embassy UK
Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf meeting with Dutch students at UCL

To conclude this visit to UCL, the Minister met some Dutch students to hear more about their experiences studying in the UK. 

This final discussion with young, ambitious students highlighted the value of exchanging ideas, listening and learning. Minister Dijkgraaf and my colleagues from the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science that joined the working visit will take all the lessons and inspiration home to the Netherlands. 

What next?

The collaboration will not stop here. For most if not all the topics we touched upon during the visit, the bilateral discussion has just started. There are many more opportunities to keep learning from each other. As Education and Science attaché, I will continue to act as a broker to encourage and facilitate this kind of exchange between both countries: between our governments and their educational and scientific institutions and organisations.

For more information regarding the visit of the Minister and UK-NL cooperation on Science and Education please contact Laura van Voorst Vader (Science & Education attaché at the Dutch Embassy in the UK): laura-van.voorstvader@minbuza.nl