The Wageningen approach to knowledge

Abdul Bayes | Published: May 15, 2019 20:22:42 | Updated: May 22, 2019 20:04:14

A partial view of Wageningen University and Research (WUR) in the Netherlands —Collected

Just a few days back, a report on the positions of universities across the world saw the light. Scanning the list through thick lenses made Bangladeshis bewildered. Especially it was a bolt from the blue for intellectual segment as none of  the 150 or so private and public universities showed up on the list. The news threw them in a sea of sorrow with nail biting and hair scratching.

According to that report, none of the Bangladeshi universities could claim a berth among top 500 universities of the world. To add salt to the wound, universities of our neighbouring nations is reported to have performed much better. In our student life, we used to proudly proclaim that the University of Dhaka (DU) is the 'Oxford of the East'. Our euphoric stance at that time was possibly justified as some of the alumni of DU became world-famous for their innovation and wisdom.

Results of ranking of universities or institutions are always riddled with controversies. Those who disqualify or stay at the lower end of the ladder, reject the results under different pretexts ranging from methodological questions to sample size to uniformity of universities and so on. We better postpone arguments and counter arguments hovering around such ranking. Rather it would be pertinent to pose the question what factors generally raise the ranking of a university. To this effect, we can possibly draw upon a case study of a European university - Wageningen University and Research (WUR).

When that 'sad news' was generating a little bit of anguish in the conscious corner of Bangladesh  in  a very hot summer, the writer  of this article was in Wageningen (Netherlands) shivering with the bite of the chilly winter.  As a former professor and vice-chancellor of a public university of Bangladesh, he was also no less perturbed at the pitiful performance of Bangladeshi universities in the world arena. Wageningen is a very small town of 40,000 people. It can be presumed that the city itself grew centring the university. It is no wonder that many universities in the world are city-centric. However, WUR looks like Jahangirnagar University in terms of size of students - around 12,000 - and also, to an extent, in natural look with many trees  and green grass.

The WUR is located three kilometres north of the house that the writer lived in. There were hardly any bus service for  commuting with comfort.  So walking was the solution and on way on foot, the happenings around instilled in mind that the area was purely agricultural -  good agricultural practices running on both sides of the road. School students came with their teachers to gain practical knowledge in farming and thus acquire the knowledge of the process from ploughing to plate; farm households were busy in preparing the fields with modem technology, livestock population such as bullocks and cows, horses, lambs etc. were grazing on vast tracts of land. Land is abundant there, scarce is people.

The author was told that the university has the distinctive feature of serving as research laboratory of famous corporations. For example, Unilever is having a very large research outfit in the campus -- reputed for agricultural research -- as it aims to deal in agricultural products in future. Likewise, many companies are trying to get research benefits from WUR. Students from various parts of the world come here to reap the benefits of rigorous research and teaching carried out. Some bright Bangladeshi students are working under brilliant professors of different fields. Mentionable, WUR is the best university in the Netherlands and one of the leading international universities in the field of healthy food and living environment. The mission  of WUR is ‘to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life’. The website of the university writes: ‘The strength of Wageningen University and Research lies in its ability to join the forces of specialised research institutes and the university. It also lies in the combined efforts of the various fields of natural and social sciences. This union of expertise leads to scientific breakthroughs that can quickly be put into practice and be incorporated into education.’ They call it Wageningen Approach. This also fits with perceptions about the people of this country: 'Dutch people tend to think of practical initiatives, problem-solving and techniques before developing abstract ideas, broad values and universal perspectives'.

The domain of WUR consists of three core related areas: Food and food production; Living environment; Health, lifestyle and livelihoods. The curricula and research issues are selected keeping in view the emerging socio-economic imperatives both at national and international level. WUR has recently established itself as a pioneer in researches related to climate change. It has a soil museum displaying different types of soils. The faculty is selected based on merits and publications in world-renowned journals. It is listed as number 59 by Times Higher Education Ranking and voted as number one in the Netherlands for fourteen years in a row. By and large, WUR ranks top among universities with a focus on agriculture.

WUR has one of the most environment-friendly buildings in the world. The building is not made of bricks and cement but of glasses and wood. There are no ACs, no heaters in that building. Temperature inside is automatically adjusted. When heat is required, the glasses open up automatically to allow sun rays enter the building; when otherwise, they close. There are  beautiful gardens inside the building.

What factors tend to raise ranking of a university? There are many. First, faculty members must be of top educational standing including publications in reputed journals. Second, the teaching and research topics must address the emerging challenges in the world such as climate change, healthy food, meeting requirements of industries and service sectors etc. Third, the university must be free of political influence and violence, students and teachers can engage in social services but not directly in political activities. Fourth, government should allocate more resources for scientific researches with due monitoring and also provide free education for students. And finally, the university should be open to the world, not closed. It must serve as the laboratory of industries and service sector.

Abdul Bayes is a former professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University. He can be reached at abdulbayes@yahoo.com

Share if you like