Martin Paul Martin Paul Harry Heuts

“We need to face global challenges together”

Written by  Jos Cortenraad Tuesday, 07 June 2016 14:49

It was the first time the conference had been held in mainland Europe: in April, Maastricht University hosted the annual conference of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN). UM president Martin Paul saw it as a prime opportunity to shine the international spotlight on Maastricht. “Now we’re up there alongside Washington, London, New York and Hong Kong as a WUN conference city.”


UM became a member of the WUN just three years ago. “By invitation,” Paul notes, “and that’s something we’re proud of. This network fits us like a glove. Firstly because we’re keen to partner with top universities from all over the world, but also because the WUN focuses on themes that we in Maastricht see as important too. Consider public health, intercultural cooperation, educational innovation and sustainability – global challenges that no university can solve alone. We need to work together.”

They may be idealistic motives, but they also go hand in hand with UM’s business objectives. “Right”, says Paul. “We’re launching joint research projects, exploring the options for international master’s programmes and gaining access to major knowledge institutes on all continents. And with a network like this, it’s easier to apply for grants from the European Commission, the World Health Organization and other agencies. The WUN opens many doors.”

So why settle for a relatively small network of just 18 universities, not all of which are necessarily among the world’s best? “Naturally, the universities of Ghana, Cape Town, Alberta and Maastricht are not comparable with Harvard or Yale. But on their own continents, in their own ecosystems, they’re all highly innovative. We can learn a lot from them, and they from us. Think of research on disease prevention, big data or cultural heritage, to name just a few examples. Moreover, the network has short lines of communication. We know one another personally and can make agreements quickly. That’s how it should stay; I see 25 members as the maximum. This small scale also makes it easy to enter into new bilateral partnerships. For example, the FHML is now collaborating with the University of Leeds on an international master’s programme in medicine. Obviously our researchers will continue to work with hundreds of other universities worldwide, but the WUN adds that something extra.”

Paul was approached in 2014 about organising the conference in Maastricht. “It was a great opportunity, especially as it coincided with the university’s 40th anniversary. Our condition was that we could come up with a new theme. After internal discussion, we opted for Economics & Sustainability and the International Classroom. We also organised an extensive parallel conference focusing on migration; very topical for Europe and Africa, and enlightening for the American and Asian participants in terms of gaining more insight into Europe. Working together, identifying global problems and contributing to solutions wherever possible; those are the main objectives of the WUN.” For Maastricht, it meant hosting more than 500 professors, researchers and academics from all over the world. “In that sense, it was a fantastic chance for our city and region to present themselves in a global context.”

Economic perspective
During the WUN conference in Maastricht, economists were involved for the first time in various workshops and presentations. But it wasn’t just about economics, says Tom van Veen, co-organiser and professor of Economics of International Education. “We took the existing themes and approached them from an economic perspective. Climate change, education, cultural differences and healthcare all have an economic impact and consequences. Prior to the conference we formed a steering committee with 14 economists from the participating universities and considered each theme from an economic standpoint. And we definitely plan to follow up at future conferences. At the School of Business and Economics we’re in the process of re-evaluating our research programmes, so input by economists from all over the world on issues like migration, climate change and, most recently, tax evasion, is extremely valuable. These are global themes we want to collaborate on in research and perhaps also in teaching. We’ll continue to develop these plans in the coming months and years.”

Climate, energy and the financial world
The economic consequences of climate change were also in the spotlight during the WUN conference. This is a specialisation of Olaf Sleijpen, endowed professor of European Economic Policy at UM and division director of regulatory policy at De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). “It’s a very topical theme at DNB”, he says. “While it may not be immediately obvious, climate change and energy consumption have a big impact on the financial world. Pension funds and other large investors have capital in oil companies and firms involved in fossil fuels. Offshore companies, transporters, drilling and exploration companies, you name it. The transition to renewable energy sources will happen eventually. But if this happens too quickly, there are risks involved for the financial world. We’re already seeing companies like Shell, BP and Total struggling. Share prices are being squeezed, capital is being moved to other sectors. The challenge for the financial sector is to manage these risks well. As a central bank, we keep a close eye on these developments. And we advise the Dutch government to focus on long-term policy: on effecting a gradual transition to renewable energy and investing steadily to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

In Sleijpen’s view, broad-based academic research is vital to the debates on climate change and energy consumption. “In the WUN network, we can do this type of research together. For example, we’re currently working to set up a large-scale study including a Middle Eastern university and our WUN partners. That’s the added value of a network like this. And it should be clear that the economic aspects cannot be ignored.”

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