A new degree programme? Maastricht research determines in part whether there will be one

Didier Fouarge

A new degree programme? Maastricht research determines in part whether there will be one

The societal impact of UM research

25-03-2024 · Interview

In today’s world, the societal impact of research findings seems more important than getting published in an academic journal like Nature or The Lancet. What impact has research conducted at UM had in recent years? This week: how labour market forecasts by UM researchers are shaping the landscape of Dutch higher education.

Towards the end of last year, the Dutch Ministry of Education turned down a proposal for three new degree programmes at Maastricht University – two bachelor’s programmes and one master’s. There is currently no demand for young graduates in Responsible Data Science, Sustainable Bioscience or Crop Biotechnology and Engineering, reasoned the Committee for the Efficiency of Higher Education (CDHO), which advises the Minister of Education on approving new degree programmes. And for the past ten years, its recommendations have been based partly on labour market forecasts by the Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA) of the School of Business and Economics. ROA has been issuing these forecasts since 1986. Didier Fouarge, originally from Belgium, is director and professor at the centre.

Irony

UM research getting in the way of new programmes being introduced at UM – Fouarge appreciates the irony, he admits over Zoom. In any case, it illustrates the importance attached to ROA forecasts beyond the walls of the university. “How will the labour market evolve over the next five or six years? Which directions seem promising? Our information serves to help companies, governments and prospective students make informed policies and decisions.”

“Help”, he stresses, is the operative word here. “We do our research as best we can, but we don’t have all the answers.” Fouarge says the CDHO recognises this, too. “Our forecasts inform their decisions. That’s real impact”, he says proudly. “At the same time, the committee is open to listening to input from institutions wanting to launch new programmes. They’ve become more flexible about this over the years.”

A long email

However, Fouarge believes the question of whether ROA research has a social impact should be interpreted more broadly. “We ask ourselves this question every year, along with the question of how to measure impact. We currently use three indicators: how often we speak at companies and other organisations, how often the press refers to us, and how often our research gets mentioned in the House of Representatives.” And Fouarge argues that it could be interpreted even more broadly. “The other day, a contact of mine at the Ministry of Education asked if I could help answer a few parliamentary questions. I sent him a long email. If you ask me, that’s impact, too – helping policymakers formulate good answers.”

Publish less

He acknowledges that these things take time, and time is a limited resource. “Look, of course my colleagues and I want to publish our research in top-tier journals. But you can’t do that ten times in a row if you also want to disseminate your findings to society. No, I don’t find that painful. It even says in our vision document that ROA aims to inform and inspire policy through high-quality research. It would be painful if our work was never cited in key policy documents, or if external parties never commissioned our research. I accept that this means I don’t publish as much as other economists. I enjoy doing research that informs policy, whether at the national legislative level or in the field of education.”

Unintened impact

There’s also such a thing as unintended impact, Fouarge notes with some irritation. ROA research also gets referenced in discussions about discontinuing existing programmes and debates about allocating funds across different education sectors. “That’s not what our forecasts are intended for”, he says firmly. “They aren’t Soviet-type planning tools, or a means of determining how to allocate funds.”

Fouarge, an avid cyclist, prefers to liken them to the weather radar he checks before heading out on his bike. “It gives me an idea of what to expect on the road and whether I’ll face headwinds on my way back. But even the best forecasters get the weather wrong sometimes. Our forecasts are like a ‘labour market radar’ for policymakers – they provide direction for the future, but we don’t always get it right either.”

Photo: Ellen Oosterhof

Categories: news_top, Science
Tags: Impact, ROA, Didier Fouarge, Labour market, Forecast

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