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This is where I learned critical analysis

Following Loek Hermans, Ingrid van Engelshoven is the second Minister of Education to have a background in studying public administration in Nijmegen. And she has fond memories of her studies here and of the city. But it was a combination of circumstances that brought Ingrid van Engelshoven to the former Catholic University Nijmegen.

Coming from a family of scientists, it would have been an obvious choice for Van Engelshoven to become an engineer, like her brother. However, she had ambitions to work in the diplomatic service or international relations, so political sciences seemed a more suitable choice. “The only question was, where? I grew up in Belgium and went to high school there. I actually wanted to study in Leuven. But that course primarily trained students to work in the Belgian government and, not being Belgian put me at a great disadvantage. So, I faced a choice between giving up my Dutch nationality and going to study in the Netherlands. As I wasn’t really prepared to give up my nationality, I chose the second option,” she explains. “I chose Nijmegen because the idea of going to study in the north of the Netherlands was just a step too far.”

Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I’ve made a few big mistakes in my time and I learned a lot from them

Inspiring lecturers During the course of her studies, Van Engelshoven’s diplomatic ambitions gradually faded away. “I felt an increasing connection with Dutch politics and governance, especially when I became active in the D66 political party, as chair of the Nijmegen constituency. But I found it hard to choose.” Looking back, she emphasises the impact the book Essence of Decision had on her. “It’s a great book. I still have it. It explains the Cuban missile crisis from a number of different angles and it taught me that there is always more than one side to any political problem. There was also a study on how the decisions on the Westerschelde were made, which really showed the different ways of approaching an issue. This really fits in with the way I do politics. A third book that still resonates with me and that I still pick up again from time to time, is Logic. A brilliant book, but its impact on me also has a lot to do with the lecturer, Grahame Lock.

He was Professor of Political Theory at that time and was the lecturer I found most inspiring in the department. He brought a lot of real life situations into his lectures. He changed the way I read the newspaper. He showed how different the approaches of a journalist at de Volkskrant and de Telegraaf were. But he also taught us to look critically at what we wrote ourselves.” Another lecturer, who made a big impression on Van Engelshoven was Leon Wecke, who was also a critical thinker. The most important thing Van Engelshoven learned during her studies was critical analysis of problems and of situations. And, another key skill for a politician: how you can influence and fine-tune processes. “Although,” she admits, “that’s not so very difficult when you’re the minister in charge of a department.”

Public administration and policy studies Van Engelshoven was one of the first students to study policy and administrative studies. When she started her studies, in 1984, public administration was still part of political science and, therefore, came under Social Sciences. But, half way through her degree, a separation took place. This meant that Van Engelshoven did not graduate in political science, but in policy and administrative studies. “We sometimes had a real sense of being pioneers, as things weren’t always that well organised at first.” Van Engelshoven also experienced the move from the historic Stella Maris building on the Van Schaeck Mathonsingel in Nijmegen, to the campus building in Thomas van Aquinostraat. “And now that’s going too,” she notes. “I was in Nijmegen recently and noticed how much the campus has changed recently.”

Political career The combination of her studies and political activities took Van Engelshoven to The Hague, where, after graduating, she became a policy assistant for the D66 parliamentary party. After various positions as a civil servant, she began her political career in 2010, as city councillor in charge of Education in The Hague. It was there in 2014 that Van Engelshoven experienced the high point of her career to date: the defeat of the PVV party, with whom her party, for which she was heading the candidate list, was embroiled in a neck-and-neck race right up to the end. “I’ll never forget the moment we were told the results,” Van Engelshoven recalls. “Not only did we beat the PVV by a sizable margin, D66 also became the largest party in the city where the Dutch government has its seat.”

36 billion euro budget And now Van Engelshoven is Minister of Education, which is rather different from being a councillor in charge of education in a large city. “The mechanisms for taking decisions are the same,” she explains. “But there are several very significant differences. For example, I have a budget of 36 billion euros,” she says, sounding almost surprised. “But that is primarily a difference of scale. A larger difference is the degree to which everything you do as a minister is scrutinized under a magnifying glass. Everyone knows you and has an opinion about what you do, and everything you do gets attention somewhere. As a city councilor, you’re much more anonymous. The impact of the decisions I take here is also far greater. As a minister, I’m in charge of the frameworks set out in the legislation. That’s a great responsibility, but that’s precisely what makes the work exciting. It really has an impact, including on universities.” Van Engelshoven explains: ‘I’m pleased that we’re providing an extra 450 million euros for academic research. For me, the most important aspect of this is supporting fundamental research.

I am disturbed by the way private investment in fundamental research is falling, as without investment, there won’t be any new Nobel Prize winners like Ben Feringa!” The minister also has an opinion on the internationalisation of higher education. True to the passion for critical analysis that she developed in Nijmegen, she notes a lack of nuance in the discussion about education being conducted in English: “It’s not so black and white. English can be very useful in a degree - if it’s training students for an international career. If not, then it makes much more sense to teach in Dutch.” Van Engelshoven is critical when it comes to the large numbers of foreign students. “Universities that recruit foreign students purely to increase student numbers with the aim of obtaining more funds do not have the interests of providing quality education as their main priority.”

Extra-curriculum activities It comes as no surprise that Van Engelshoven recommends students get involved in other activities while studying: “Getting politically active during my studies really helped me, and there are lots of other activities that make you attractive to potential employers.” She warns students to watch out that they don’t close the door on opportunities: “There are still many women who choose to work part time after they graduate. In doing so, you make things very difficult for yourself later...” And Van Engelshoven has another tip: “Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. I’ve made a few big mistakes in my time and I learned a lot from them. I think everyone should have the benefit of that kind of experience!”/PvdH

Minister Van Engelshoven (Education, Culture and Science)
Ingrid van Engelshoven on LinkedIn