Maastricht turns to Student Think Tank for advice
April 4, 2008 3 Comments
“I loved it. It was like walking through your project every day.” Paula Heitz (23), who studies psychology at University College Maastricht (UCM) is not the only one to be enthusiastic about the College’s student Think Tank. “We were given a real assignment. It wasn’t just theory,” says fellow psychology student Sina Spohr (22).
Think Tank: UCM’s new baby
Every semester UCM students are given the opportunity to put their knowledge into practice by taking part in various projects. In January this year the offer for third year students was extended. Instead of the usual option – organising a conference – they could now choose to step into the shoes of a Think Tank researcher. Their task would be to work together as a team and formulate a number of policy recommendations to a given organisation.
UCM teachers Wilfred van Dellen, Oscar van den Wijngaard and Roberta Haar initiated the new project as a means to reflect the school’s multidisciplinary background. “In their third year our students have reached a certain level of academic proficiency. They know how to write, make presentations, argue, and conduct research in a scientific way. We wanted to introduce a new element: giving advice,” Van Dellen explains. “Something in the line of policy recommendation was Oscar’s idea and we all thought it was brilliant.”
Cooperation with Maastricht’s City Hall
The UCM approached City Hall officials Jacques Costongs and Jan Weling and was surprised at their enthusiastic response to the offer for cooperation. The research topic was soon defined: What can Maastricht do to reverse the trend of a declining population? And what must it do to keep young professionals in the city, instead of seeing them move elsewhere once they complete their education?
“Write a policy recommendation report,” the new student Think Tank was told. “You have four weeks. One of the rooms at UCM is going to be your full-time office. Good luck!”
The students were divided into two groups of about 12 people each and were left free to structure their work on their own. “At the UM we are expected to practice our team-work skills continuously. However, working on a presentation together with three other people is nothing compared to a Think Tank. This was a real team work,” says Ingrid Kylstad (23), a student in politics and history. She thinks that the project also made her feel a bit more at home in Maastricht. “I’ve been here two years already but never got to know as much about the city as during those four weeks.”
Scratching the surface
The students settled to the task and soon discovered that the demographic decline might just be the least of Maastricht’s causes for concern. Sina doesn’t have to think long before starting to explain the city’s problems: “It is mostly the educated population that takes part in the exodus. There are no appropriate job offers for skilled workers, especially not in English. UM graduates have much less problems finding a position in other Dutch cities or abroad, so why would they stay?” “Low-skilled workers are abundant and the unemployment rate is one of the highest in the Netherlands,” Paula adds. The list continues: “The educational drop-out is almost double that of the Netherlands. Another problem is the integration between the locals and students – there is none”.
Also, Maastricht is struggling with its image. The students explain that while on the one hand the city is trying to send out the message that it’s a vibrant place, on the other hand the expectations created by this image are not always met. “The Treaty of Maastricht is used as a symbol of a European outlook, the university is made synonymous with an attractive student environment, and the shops and cobblestone streets are meant to give a “posh” image to Maastricht.” Yet, “after a couple of months, students realise that Maastricht is not quite the heavenly student harbour they had expected. The nightlife is disappointing; culturally, the city doesn’t have that much to offer in the end.” Many students also feel that Maastricht’s position in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion could be improved.
It is interesting to listen to their perspectives, especially considering that although the students were divided into two different groups, they still came to the same conclusions.
All in all, the student Think Tank discovered that after scratching the surface of a seemingly straightforward question (the demographic decline), many more problems came to light. Its task was now to advise the city on how to fix them.
A motivating factor for the students was that they had been told that the city had also been conducting its own independent research about the same issue for some time. For them, the incentive to succeed was even stronger than getting good grades – they knew that there was a fair chance that their recommendations might be integrated in the final report.
“And even if they end up not using them, it’s still really encouraging that they at least asked for our opinion on this issue,” reflects Sina. The students are hoping to be reinvited back at the City Hall in a couple of weeks to be informed about any progress made. “We deserve this,” Sina believes.
Getting down to business – the preparations
In order to give the students some inspiration and a practical outlook on the task at hand, the coordinators of the project organised a trip to the European Parliament and the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. “We saw Julius op de Beke at the Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities. His presentation was very good. We saw Christof Kienel at the Committee of the Regions. And we had a speaker from the European Parliament Visits and Seminar Unit,” explains Roberta Haar.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the trip to Brussels left the students with an impression of a lack of professionalism: “I felt like they treated us like a highschool group. They didn’t answer our questions well,” says Paula, referring mostly to the person from the Parliament. “[Julius op de Beke and Christof Kienel at] the Directorate General for Unemployment and the Committee of the Regions were much better, even though still rather off the topic. We were interested mostly in the demographic issues and they weren’t specific enough.”
Sina agrees: “We’re not even political science students. Paula and I are doing psychology and we still felt so competent in front of them. After all our training in critical thinking it was easy, even for us, to detect some flaws in their argumentation.”
In a funny twist however, the trip turned out to be a very good motivating factor for the students, because it made them feel confident that they would be able to perform well.
“It really was a full-time project. We would meet every day for multiple hours. We brought a couch, a coffee machine and a plant into our office space at UCM. The walls were full of mind-maps, posters and results of our brainstorming sessions,” remembers Ingrid.
The students’ diverse academic outlook, typical of the UCM profile, only spiced up the research work. Some of them knew how to use SPSS (a statistics programme), others how to build questionnaires, some were thinking about the city’s possibilities for economic development, and those with a marketing background were analysing issues related to Maastricht’s image.
Healing the city
A common perception in Maastricht is that the city, which has recently seen a significant drop in its number of inhabitants, should work on increasing the size of its population. According to official figures, Maastricht has lost about 4,000 inhabitants in the last three to four years, going down from 122,000 to 118,000.
The students suggest however that the city should strive for a different objective. “If people start escaping a city, they obviously are not entirely happy with what it has to offer. Maastricht should rather focus on not letting the population decrease even further,” they advise.
Some of the students’ main conclusions propose improvements in various fields: the image of the city, its place in the region and its socio-economic situation.
From the economic perspective, companies should be given good incentives to open branch offices in Maastricht. The focus shouldn’t be only on the “major players” but also on small and medium-size companies. The university is educating many skilled workers who leave the city when they graduate. The chance is much higher that they would stay if they could find appropriate jobs in the city.
Maastricht should develop a more stable image (this is related to social factors such as the integration between the local population and students). Contrarily to what most people would assume, local residents claimed in a survey that they would like to interact more with the students living in the city.
One of the two Think Tank groups designed a park space aiming at fostering contacts within the community core (local residents, students, families, and the elderly). This area should not be targeted at tourists but specifically at Maastricht’s various communities.
Another idea to increase the integration between the student population and local residents would be to dedicate a space to the students of the Theatre Academy, the UM or Zuyd University, and members of extra-curricular associations, like the drama group Alles is Drama. The various groups could use this space to exhibit their works, ideas or performances.
Or the city could let empty houses to educational institutions for a small fee. And why not allow students to use abandoned or run-down houses to present their works to the local population and other students? “I had never known how cool the works of the students of the Theatre Academy are before I got involved in the Think Tank. It’s like we are all [different educational institutions] separated from each other and even more from the locals,” says Paula.
Boom (Tree), a film by the Theatre Academy (Toneelacademie) in Maastricht
One of the most significant recent events for the region was the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992. It created a great opportunity for Maastricht to be recognised as an important (or even a central) player in the Meuse-Rhine Euroregion. However, 16 years later, the cooperation between neighbouring cities leaves much room for improvement. According to the student Think Tank, creating exchange programmes for pupils, more and better public transportation services (especially train connections) would be good starting points.
The Think Tank is here to stay
“Our Think Tank report had over 50 pages. We made a lot of recommendations. I believe we did a great job, especially considering the time constraints and the lack of a really professional training,” says Ingrid. The teachers were even more impressed than the students themselves. It was the first time for UCM to run a Think Tank project and three different outcome scenarios were possible: the project would turn out to be 1. a disaster, 2. OK, or 3. impressive.
When asked, not a single student or teacher seems to point out to number 1 or 2. A UCM alumnus who is now doing her Master’s at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam has even chosen the UCM student Think Tank as her case study in her thesis about social engagement at liberal arts colleges. “It truly is a great idea to introduce social engagement at UCM. Most liberal colleges around the world have such programmes too,” observes Petra Mocová.
“We would like to keep the deal we have with the City Hall but there is definitely room to extend the offer,” says Wilfred van Dellen. “We could also start cooperating with different organisations, for example commercial companies. The amount of students at UCM is increasing and therefore demand for such projects will also go up. We will definitely keep our Think Tank and only work on improving it.” For Van Dellen, there is no doubt about the grade he will give to the project: Excellent.
By Hania Piotrowska
Hania Piotrowska is a Polish student at University College Maastricht.