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“The early years were defined by struggle”

Written by  Annelotte Huiskes Tuesday, 07 June 2016 14:35

Like the former rectors Coen Hemker and Vic Bonke, Hans Philipsen was among the pioneers of Maastricht University. He was dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences in Leiden when he was asked, in 1973, to join a committee looking for suitable professors for the medical faculty in Maastricht. He became so enthusiastic about the innovative Problem-Based Learning (PBL) system that he resigned from the committee and put himself forward instead. As someone who knew how to go about setting up a faculty, he quickly was elected to the Executive Board and helped to found the health sciences faculty. He served on the Executive Board no fewer than ten years: eight as vice president and two as rector, succeeding Job Cohen from 1993 to 1995.


“The main thing I remember about the opening ceremony in the Sint Servaaskerk in 1976 is the ceremony itself. That was a great moment for everyone – just starting up a new university was no easy task. Both the staff and the students of medicine took a risk by coming here before the programme was officially accredited. The early years were mainly defined by enthusiasm and hard work but also by struggle. We had to fight for our survival, because the education minister Arie Pais was considering shutting down Maastricht within a decade of its founding due to necessary national budget cuts.

“The small-scale PBL system was a reaction to the fact that universities in the 1970s were growing too fast: there were more and more students but not enough lecturers. It developed out of the same spirit that led to the student revolt in Paris; the idea that ‘the times they are a-changin’’. It was a great challenge, collaborating with others here in Maastricht to change the educational system. “I found the position of rector more appealing than that of vice president. As vice president I was mainly involved with finances and human resources, not directly academic policy. It’s the rector whose job it is to stand up for education and research. And you have to show your face everywhere, like a sort of mayor. I can’t say that was unpleasant.

“My main achievement as rector was the adoption of a policy document on internationalisation stipulating, among other things, that the university had to become bilingual. The time was ripe, because the success of Maastricht also had to do with the influx of international students. We had the advantage of the Maastricht Treaty being signed here in 1991, which meant the whole world had heard of Maastricht. That’s also why we changed the name from Rijksuniversiteit Limburg to Maastricht University. Limburg of course wasn’t so pleased about that.

“Now a situation is gradually developing that’s similar to what we saw around 1965, with the students and especially the younger teaching staff on the defensive. The emphasis is on research and the number of publications. A kind of business culture is arising to the detriment of education, yet education is the very thing that sets Maastricht apart – that’s what we should be focusing on. As a relatively small university you can’t expect to be among the top 30 research universities in the world. That’s nonsense, a hopeless task.”

Hans Philipsen (1935) studied sociology and anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, where he obtained his PhD in 1968. That year he was appointed professor of Methodology and Techniques of Social Science Research in Leiden. He relocated to Maastricht after being appointed professor of Medical Sociology at the medical faculty in 1974. He was the first chair of the University Council and the first elected member of the Executive Board from 1976 to 1980, followed by a three-year appointment as founding dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences. Between 1983 en 1993 he developed and executed research programmes in the Health Sciences, especially in Nursing Science. He served as UM rector from 1993 to 1995, after which he was appointed to the Executive Board as UM vice president. In the last two years, he was vice rector of internationalisation alongside his faculty post.

In celebration of Maastricht University’s 40th anniversary this year, video portraits have been made of the six surviving former rectors of the university. This is an abridged version of one of these interviews. For the full interviews please visit the special anniversary website at www.maastrichtuniversity.nl/jubileum. These video portraits make use of unique fragments from the signing of the university’s founding charter by Queen Juliana and Sjeng Tans in the Sint Servaaskerk in 1976.

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