Our second priority is to push even further to the forefront of research. The UHasselt of 2030 will have strong local roots, but also a global perspective. We are a university in Limburg, and we cherish that, but we are ambitious, and we want to make our university a major international/European player. We want to be fully committed to international, European and major Belgian/Flemish research projects, top publications and projects with impact.
In doing so, we are guided by major societal challenges, which certainly include the ‘grand challenges’ we have been working on for several years now (a sustainable, healthy and inclusive society), but also other areas such as digitisation and artificial intelligence. In this way we are also ensuring that our students will receive an excellent education that prepares them for the challenges of 2030 and beyond.
In addition to the objectives and measures under our first priority, several of which will typically contribute to our second priority, we are also considering the following objectives and measures:
1. We will continue to invest in attracting research resources
We do this primarily with a view to attracting EU funding, which is becoming increasingly important. In addition, the parameters for the calculation of the BOF and IOF keys have been changed. Attracting funding from the European Framework Programmes has become one of the parameters used for both keys. Other universities have also understood this; UGent, for example, decided to recruit 12 new staff members in February in order to strengthen their EU cell.
At the moment, we are not yet sufficiently equipped to support research which is more in the direction of European framework programmes. We need to start following this up more actively, building more expertise, so that we can also offer more qualitative support to our researchers. This will ensure that the Research Coordination Office can focus sufficiently on the EU. We will provide support if necessary.
This will also allow us to monitor European policy developments, such as the European Green Deal, much more closely. The EU is working on visions of the university of the future. We must try to influence these visions. As a small university that will obviously not be easy, but through our stronger presence in university consortia/networks (see below), it will not be impossible.
We are also strengthening our monitoring of the Flemish/Belgian level. There, too, we must be able to influence policy decisions. For our part, this means that we sometimes have to adapt more flexibly to Flemish/Belgian policy. One Flemish source of funding that is still significantly underused at the moment, for example, is VLAIO funding. Together with the IOF managers and TTO, we will draw greater attention to these channels and try to support our researchers in a very hands-on fashion.
Furthermore, we will promote and support joint publications with international partners (these will also contribute to the parameters in the BOF and IOF keys).
When it comes to our stimulus policy, we will rely on cooperation and agreements with other universities, research institutions, etc. in order to gain inspiration or adopt good practices. We will also encourage the entire ZAP/AAP/OP/BAP/ATP to take part in interuniversity and international meetings, so that we can look to the future and build links with colleagues through these meetings.
The important thing to remember throughout is this: measuring is knowing. We will closely monitor the parameters of our research. This is crucial as a part of policy support. We also need to show that we can effectively benchmark ourselves and that we can easily perform data analyses when needed. This is also crucial for international rankings, which in turn lead to international visibility.
2. We will revitalize the idea of the ‘civic university’
As mentioned, we must cherish our strong local roots. We owe a lot to Limburg. Over the years we have built up a very large network from which various collaborations have grown. As an institution, we are reaping the benefits of this in terms of both research and education.
These local roots are typical of ‘civic’ universities. In order to contribute to our objective of research at the top level, we want to actively pursue the goal of becoming a civic university. If we are to achieve this, however, we must radically revitalize the idea of our civic role. We don’t ‘feel’ this idea enough yet. It is not yet a part of our DNA. As a result, we are in danger of missing out on support, which absolutely must not be allowed to happen.
We are therefore working hard to develop a vision with a step-by-step plan. We will provide an academic policy manager as the driving force. Amongst other things, we are also organising a large convention involving all major stakeholders in the region as well as the necessary follow-up. We are looking for partnerships specifically with universities that have a civic focus in order to learn from them (e.g. YUFE (Young Universities for the Future of Europe), Arqus (Arqus European University Alliance), CIVIS (A European Civic University)).
In this way, we will also contribute to a stronger region.
3. We will look for further connections to large university networks
In order to further shape our international image and stimulate our international research partnerships, we will join various large university networks.
We are already a member of, amongst others:
We will assess the added value of these networks and where necessary become more active in our participation.
We are also examining the possibility of joining:
We will also actively monitor the European Universities Initiative (EUI) of the European Union.
4. We will reflect on the relationship between research institutes/centres and faculties
Our research institutes (Biomedical Research Institute (BIOMED), Centre for Environmental Sciences (CMK), Data Science Institute (DSI) and Institute for Materials Research (IMO-IMOMEC)) and our research centres (Expertise Centre for Digital Media (EDM), Limburg Clinical Research Centre (LCRC) and the Institute for Mobility (IMOB)) are the showcase examples of our research.
In addition to these, however, a great deal of research also takes place within faculties in research groups unrelated to these institutes and centres. This often occurs within smaller groups and in niche areas.
The nature of the relationship between the research institutes/centres and the faculties has not always been obvious. In terms of staffing, for example, the institutes and centres always fall (as far as is known) under one or more departments of one or more faculties. Their own control is therefore limited. This sometimes leads to difficult situations.
We do not have a ready-made answer to this, but we do want to consult with the research institutes/centres and faculties and think about how we can optimise their relationship.
5. We will start informal brainstorm retreats
We have a lot of in-house expertise. This undoubtedly gives rise to interesting ideas on a regular basis. A number of these will emerge through the structural institutions and meetings, but we fear that we may currently be missing out on some of them. We want to better capture them in one form or another.
We are considering starting informal brainstorm retreats (we are discussing this here in the context of research, but we are also considering this for education and our central organisation). For example, a couple of times a year we would meet in isolation to brainstorm research policy with, amongst others, members of the Research Council and, for example, those of us responsible for large projects (e.g. ERC grants, Methusalem funding, etc.), our FWO panel members, our members of the Young Academy, and so on. This would allow us to get a good picture of the ideas surrounding research policy.
On a smaller scale, we are also thinking of organising Foresight exercises (e.g. revolving around the grand challenges).
6. We will provide for periods of ‘academic breathing room’
We’re concerned about the welfare of our researchers. We’ve already raised the issue of enormous workloads. Work pressure kills creativity, while creativity is necessary for innovation. Inventing and trying out new ideas also provides a lot of positive energy. We need to offer researchers opportunities to get out of the rat race from time to time in order to recharge their batteries.
We already offer support for sabbatical leave. Organising this is tricky in practice, partly because it requires serious effort to plan out and apply for it. As a result, throughout the many years it has hardly been used (+/- two times).
We therefore want to supplement this with something new. We don’t always have to reinvent the wheel ourselves. For our colleagues at KU Leuven, there is such a thing as a period of ‘academic breathing room’: a period of several months during which a ZAP member is exempted from teaching obligations and internal tasks and can fully focus on his/her research. The university covers the costs for the replacement of teaching assignments.
We have already talked extensively about internationalisation when discussing our communication and marketing policy, and just above when discussing increased targeting of European funding and greater connection to international/European university networks. Below we will focus on a few additional specific aspects of internationalisation as related to research.
1. We will remain strongly committed to VLIR-UOS
At UHasselt we have many projects running within the framework of VLIR-UOS. This has resulted in excellent research results, doctorates and long-term partnerships. We know from experience that these are not always straightforward projects/collaborations given cultural differences, the infrastructure available, differing expectations, and so on, but they have proven very rich (learning) experiences and often something beautiful blossoms out of them.
In addition, as a university we also have obligation towards wider society. Development cooperation is part of this.
That is why we will continue to focus strongly on VLIR-UOS.
In order to strengthen our commitment, we will also ensure that initiatives/projects concerning UOS and internationalisation more broadly are given a place in ZAP’s academic dossier and in their evaluations.
2. We confirm our full commitment to using the BOF as a lever for internationalisation
There are various programmes within the Special Research Fund (Bijzonder Onderzoeksfonds / BOF) to stimulate internationalisation. Examples include Bilateral Scientific Cooperation programmes (Bilaterale wetenschappelijke samenwerking / BILA), joint doctoral scholarships with the UM, and mobility scholarships. We confirm our full support for these programmes. These have proven to be important and successful channels. The joint doctoral scholarships with the ULg and the UNamur perhaps cannot be categorised under internationalisation per se, but they enjoy the same appreciation.
3. We will increase our international focus and international mobility
As mentioned earlier, there is a double mismatch in terms of internationalisation between our students and our staff. Firstly, we have a relatively low population of international students (13%), but a relatively high (and growing) percentage of foreign PhD students (45%). This means that a considerable number of our PhD students must be recruited externally. This creates a risk that we are less able to properly assess their profiles. We have to act on this, primarily through the introduction of more internationally oriented programmes, so that we get a higher influx of international students. This will also benefit our international visibility more generally. This topic is also discussed under our third priority covering education.
Secondly, there is a mismatch between our population of foreign PhD students and our relatively low population of international professors (+/-90% have Belgian nationality). Again, we can see that we need to offer improved future prospects to our foreign PhD students. Otherwise our attractiveness as an international employer is in danger of decreasing, as is our intake. We must be very vigilant about this and adopt necessary initiatives (see above).
We will continue to focus strongly on the international mobility of our researchers, and we will also continue to encourage teacher mobility programmes such as Erasmus+ (with relevant follow-up) and similar initiatives.
4. We will strengthen the role of internationalisation in our organisation and we will provide ‘International ambassadors’
Research and internationalisation are now positioned effectively together within the Directorate for Research and Internationalisation. That works, and we will keep it that way. We expect the Internationalisation and Development Cooperation Department (Dienst Internationalisering en Ontwikkelingssamenwerking / DIOS) to develop a sound welcome policy and expertise on international mobility, as well as a policy covering international research programmes. In terms of welcome policy, serious progress has already been made in the past year.
In addition, we want to strengthen the academic image of our internationalisation policy (both North-South and certainly North-North). It goes without saying that the presence of the rectors and/or vice-rectors is crucial at royal events, annual receptions held by appointed bodies, and other events to which rectors and/or vice-rectors are invited. As a university, we need to be visible in the academic landscape, and certainly at events where companies are present.
However, we want to go the extra mile. That is why, in addition to the rector and vice-rectors, we will appoint an academic representative from Alpha, Beta and Gamma faculties to promote or represent UHasselt at home and abroad. These will be our ‘International ambassadors’.