Perry den Brok on future education and investing in soft skills: ‘If things go wrong, there’s nothing soft about it’

Technical universities in the Netherlands have formed an alliance since 2014. In that time, they were confronted with a series of challenges that affected educational quality. The 4TU Centre for Engineering Education (4TU.CEE) was founded in order to come up with solutions. Chairman is Perry den Brok, who is also a member of the Impact at the Core advisory board. We spoke to him about the importance of a diversity of skills and to hear his vision about the education of tomorrow.

Let’s start by dreaming a little bit: what do you think the learning environment of tomorrow will look like?

“Education will become more comprehensive and flexible; it will be tailored for students and made available independent of time and place. I also expect a broader variety in the learning environment. At this point we can boil it down to lectures, seminars and a lab or internship. I think we will get more hybrid forms. You already see this with challenge-based learning: a learning situation that is a work situation at the same time, all kinds of people coming to campus to work together on certain issues.”

“Students get more critical as they get more choices, so universities need to think carefully about what they offer in term of education. Nowadays we often assume a structure: we offer something, you take it. But the flexibility that I just mentioned will make it possible for students to take certain components at one university and to go to another institution for other subjects. They’ll have the opportunity to say: I'll go to Rotterdam for management and to Wageningen for a component on sustainability. This way they build a portfolio for themselves.”

“Also, assessment is going to change. I think non-cognitive learning outcomes will become increasingly important. We currently test knowledge, understanding of knowledge and application of knowledge. I think attitude, ethics, and certain skills such as motivation and resilience are going to get bigger roles. If you look at vacancies, you’ll see that employers are looking for competencies and experience; they trust the academic theoretical base. Students would like us to make those skills visible. They can do all kinds of extracurricular challenges and projects, but the skills they gain in the process are not part of their diploma at this point.”

How do we prepare and involve teachers for such educational transitions?

“A lecturer can’t be expected to know everything. What you see in many universities is that teachers develop themselves; on top of their basic qualification as a lecturer, they add a second step, a senior qualification if you like. That way, teachers specialize; some are experts when it comes to technical applications, others excel in testing and educational design. My expectation is that, just as is the case for students, instructors will build certain profiles. However, in the process we must ensure a good distribution of types of lecturers with certain skills. Also, that just makes it more fun!”

And how is the student moving along?

“Because there is more and more to choose from, it becomes important for students to think about their future profile. Students used to apply to technical universities to be trained as a technical researcher with the ability to work in a lab; you didn’t really have to think about what you wanted to become or what exactly you came to TU for. Nowadays, there are many more options in terms of educational content, and students can choose to combine engineering and business or pursue a career in leadership.”

We know you think it's important that we cross over between technical and broad universities. Can you elaborate on that?

“Many of the big challenges that are out there now, and that we want to prepare our students for, require expertise from a multitude of fields. We cannot all be good at everything, so let’s make smart use of what the other is good at. You can create exciting new courses and programs by cleverly combining different areas of expertise. For example, if we at TU are really good with IT tools, but struggling with the philosophical-ethical side, how nice is it that we can appeal to EUR or another university!”

How do we avoid the scenario of water and oil in a bottle? You can shake all you want, but after a while it’s just water and oil in a bottle again. How do we get students to really engage in a collaborative process and come to results?

“I see what you mean. I think both broad and technical universities tend to underestimate that, in order to work together and to speak each other’s language, we have to invest in certain skills in students. It should not be the case that we throw students into the water and that we judge them by looking at which ones stay afloat.”

“For example, if you want to create a challenging assignment for students from economics and electrical engineering together, you’d be wise to realize that those two speak completely different languages. It is not obvious that two students in economics see eye to eye, let alone if they have work together with someone from a very different field. People often think: those are soft skills, anyone can do it. Think again: you have to learn and practice them!”

Going back to future education for a bit: does the hybrid learning environment create a new role for universities in society?

“Currently, there are two movements. One is an international movement in which there is more and more collaboration between universities from different countries. The other is a regional movement, the university as a hub for learning, development and innovation in the region. You can see the latter happening in Wageningen, Eindhoven and Delft, where more and more companies settle on the campus. In turn, these companies have their own labs and innovative environments in which students can work and learn. Here, we can spot talents and invest in students, and both parties have an impact on each other; if education uses real-life assignments, students are enabled to give something back to society – a prototype or advice for example.”

Dieuwertje Bravenboer

Technical universities seem to be well ahead in that area. After all, they are involved in relatively concrete assignments. How can broad universities seize that opportunity as well?

“What strikes me about technical universities: they simply try something. Perhaps it is a matter of culture. TU’s are willing to take a risk and see where it takes them. What I often see at broad universities is that things quickly turn political, with all sorts of complicated deliberative structures. While that helps to get people on board and to ensure support, it also costs enormous amounts of time.”

“The CEE was born out of necessity. Technical universities had poorly studyable programs and low enrolment rates, while their environment was begging for more people with a technical education. At a certain point you just have to act, you can’t just keep talking anymore. I think that broad universities tend to go big, but my advice would be to start implementing changes on a smaller scale, with a few leading faculties or students, and take it from there.”

“Such processes need support, that is often forgotten. You can tell a professor to try something, but if you fail to provide the appropriate support, you’d need a rather daring instructor. In addition: learn from your mistakes and don’t make a big deal out of it. One of the best things about the educational innovations we design at CEE is that they sometimes fail miserably. We learn so much from that! It would be a shame if such failures go unreported, because it leads the next person to making the same mistakes again.”

Lastly: what will you be fighting for as a member of our advisory board?

“Considering my background, I would like to work on a diversity of skills. This is difficult, because even my own university is sometimes afraid that one day, we will only be testing soft skills and will become a vocational school. Disciplinary knowledge certainly remains important, since skills are useless when the owner lacks knowledge, but collaboration across cultural and disciplinary boundaries is a skill that really belongs to an academic; learning to listen to the other, taking on the other’s perspective, co-creation.”

“It becomes quite clear now that we face the coronavirus. Wonderful vaccines have been developed, technically sound. But how do you get people to take the shot, to have trust? You can call it a soft skill because it is intangible in a sense, but if things go wrong there is nothing soft about it anymore.”

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