Although the official opening is not until 23 April, Observant was allowed in for a sneak peek. The main renovations to the beautiful Art Nouveau building overlooking Montgomery Square in Brussels were finished in early March, but that’s not to say the work is done. The furniture hasn’t arrived yet, for one thing. Here and there a wire can be seen protruding from a wall. But the overall impression is overwhelming: a grand staircase, floor upon floor of large rooms – halls, almost – with high, decorated ceilings. In the attic, stone ornaments are lying around gathering dust; in the basement of this former bank a heavy vault door protects a battery of small lockers from unwanted visitors. Have they all been emptied? Vivianne Heijnen, the campus manager, laughs. She assumes so, but she’s never checked. In another corner, not far from the front door, stands a row of screens with images beamed from surveillance cameras. Heijnen is not unhappy about this: “A year ago, the square here was full of tanks, crawling with army and police; that was right after the attacks. The cameras give you a sense of security, that you know who’s coming through the door.”
This is Brussels, after all – a world city. And the capital of Europe, a fact that played a major role in the decision in 2010 to open a campus of Maastricht University here. That said, campus is a big word: UM hoped to live up to its European ambitions from a modest rental building just a few hundred metres from the new one. There it would provide courses for European professionals and organise meetings with alumni and others. The thinking was this: as an institution that promotes the European angle in its study programmes, that conducts much European-focused research funded by EU grants, and which is keen to steep its students in the European Union, Maastricht University would benefit from being close to the action.
An annual budget of €250,000 was made available, a manager appointed – Heijnen, herself one of the first graduates of European Studies at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences – and an advisory board of big names from UM installed. And so the pioneering began, she says. To a certain degree this meant swimming against the stream: many UM employees had had a bellyful of the kinds of satellite plans that were the trademark of the former university president Jo Ritzen. There was the campus in Bangalore, India, that had swallowed up a great deal of time and effort but barely got off the ground. And now the powers-that-be wanted one in Brussels? Weren’t the staff already run off their feet with their teaching and research in Maastricht itself?
But the tide has turned, say both Heijnen and the new policy officer Felix Ruiz Cabré (From Spain? “No, Catalonia!”). Over the course of seven years activity has continued to pick up at the campus, so much so that it outgrew its original location. Networking meetings bringing students and alumni into contact with European commissioners like Frans Timmermans; research meetings to write EU grant proposals with researchers from other universities; the number of events more than doubled in just a few years’ time, thanks in part to the increasingly professional support in terms of not only content but also catering, hotel bookings and transport.
Testing the market
The campus sees itself as having three main tasks. The first is education and training for professionals in and around the European institutions. This was initially seen as the core task, but in practice it turned out to be hard to get off the ground. The strategic plan for the campus published last year describes it euphemistically as a “challenge”. Short courses lasting a few days each are not the problem. The problem is anything involving a diploma or ECTS credits, for which official accreditation is needed – despite the passing of a law which was supposed to facilitate initiatives such as Groningen’s (failed) venture in Yantai, China. That law has, explains Professor Christine Neuhold, part-time academic director of the campus since September, not yet officially come into effect. Once it does, Dutch institutions of higher education should under certain conditions be able to offer accredited programmes abroad.
Neuhold’s main remit is to expand the teaching arm of the campus, eventually with full-fledged interdisciplinary master’s programmes, in principle in collaboration with foreign universities. Whether that will ever come to pass remains unclear: the staff will need the requisite enthusiasm, and international collaboration is not always simple from a legal point of view. The options are being investigated, she says.
Bit by bit
The strategy is to do things bit by bit. Neuhold: “Small steps, short courses, then perhaps a minor. We have to test the market.” She is relying on market research that says there are ample potential course participants in Brussels, especially when UM throws its education system into the mix. That system, after all, appeals to professionals who want to bring their own input to the classroom, rather than a lecturer who stands front and centre and delivers a monologue.
The most successful pillar of the campus is its ‘research community hub’, under which seventy percent of the activities fall. At present it is mainly the faculties that are actively engaged with Europe; the Faculty of Law and FASoS (and, to a lesser degree, the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences) organise workshops, lectures, seminars and other meetings on the campus. To this end, the location is of benefit. Brussels is easier to reach internationally, certainly by plane, than Maastricht. Guests are not only researchers but also politicians from the European Parliament, such as Guy Verhofstadt, or the European Commission as well as ambassadors.
This brings us to the third function of the campus: creating a network, otherwise known as the ‘UM embassy’ role. Increasing the name recognition of UM is an important goal, not only among current and future policymakers in the EU, but also outside Europe. For example, contacts with the American mission to the EU led to 25 UM students being allowed to attend a speech by President Obama in Brussels, an honour bestowed on no other Dutch university.
The theme of employability has also made its way into the campus vocabulary. The campus can enhance a student’s prospects of a job in European circles, Vivianne Heijnen explains, even if only because a considerable number of UM alumni are now in a position to appoint others.
Picking up steam
Seven years after its launch, the Brussels campus is picking up steam. The university is investing: the budget has doubled to half a million euros per year, and Heijnen no longer does the work virtually alone. But how long she will remain in Brussels is an open question. As chair of the CDA faction in Maastricht, she is currently in the thick of negotiations for a new municipal executive. Becoming an alderman would spell the end of her Brussels adventure.