This text is a concise statement of the vision that, together with my team, I have developed for our University, and of our approach to its management and day-to-day operation. It is organized into twelve position and action points.
In the current evolving and unpredictable context, our University must change and adapt. My commitment is that change will be gradual and based on reason, not dogmatic. No pie in the sky reforms, but changes to how we are organized and function that will always be motivated by our objectives, widely discussed, understandable, and devoid of unnecessary disruptions.
The same goes for building a team that will be managing a complex organization, not without its idiosyncrasies. That the future Rector and his team have a solid experience is far from superfluous, it is even quite essential to turn a program into actions without wavering and disturbing hesitations.
Mixing this experience with a substantial renewal brings both the benefits of continuity and of a fresh outlook opening the path to the future.
II. Reasserting what a University education is about
Two essential characteristics of a University are the synergy between teaching and research, and the presence of a wide variety of disciplines ranging from the humanities to technology. Thus, not only does a University contribute to the knowledge it transmits, but it also provides an environment for its students to acquire the technical, human and social skills needed to tackle the unforeseen and complex situations they will be faced with in the future. This view is to be defended with the utmost conviction, and drifting towards a more restrictive model favoring immediate usefulness absolutely be avoided.
Knowledge is built and spreads globally, and research must thus be set in an international setting. Our University has hence to be fully visible at this level, and its researchers and faculty members must be recognized as valuable partners and contacts both nationally and internationally. For achieving this, we must support student and staff mobility, provide effective help for the preparation of international projects, and be very attentive to attractiveness and an open process while recruiting.
We should not forget that being a European and international player is what enables the University to fully contribute to our region, its economic development, and its social and cultural life.
In French-speaking Belgium, the total amount allocated to funding universities is fixed and not adapted to the growth of the number of students (the idiomatic expression for this is the “closed envelope”). Since student numbers are increasing, funding per student has been decreasing over the years, to the point that it is now barely higher than the amount allocated to students in secondary education. The government thus considers that the marginal cost of a student is zero. At the opposite, when dividing the “closed envelope” between universities, the number of students is the key parameter.
In this context, the foreseen revision of the funding rules in 202O is a major concern; each of the universities is preparing for this revision by trying to identify the parameters that would most favor it. However, as long as the global funding remains constrained within the “closed envelope”, all that will be achieved is a marginal adjustment to the allocation of miserly means. The universities must join forces and fight together to have the fiction of the zero marginal cost of additional students repealed. A realistic approach would be for the total funding for universities, which should remain separate from other education budgets, to be adapted to the number of students, but at a rate that counts the cost of additional students at only a fraction of the average cost. Allocating the funds between the universities should then be done according to the same rule, avoiding the unsound consequences of the current scheme.
What we do only makes sense to us if we understand what objectives we are contributing to, and if we can carry on our activities with the satisfaction brought by useful and well-done work. This requires excellent internal communication for everyone to fully understand his/her role in our organization, as well as values that are shared and put into practice day after day. The values I consider essential are: integrity, humaneness and freedom. These elements are essential for an effective wellbeing policy to be established. Furthermore, this policy should not only consider the individual’s situation, but should also take into account the work environment and its constraints, in order to promote pleasure at work and the overall quality of life.
There is not doubt that the university should aim at ambitious objectives. However, it is not multiplying commissions and councils, long and complicated procedures, nor the bureaucratic management of the too numerous facets of an over general plan that will get us there. On the opposite, to simplify, to give time back to essential activities, to trust and adapt procedures to actual needs, to match support and incentives to the chosen objectives, to reform only for clearly stated motives, to analyze with care and confer before deciding will let us move forward in harmony with everyone’s involvement and support.
It is essential to always confer with the peopled impacted by a project, and to do this well before any decision is made. It is when a project is put together that consultation allows significant adjustments and brings the most benefits to all parties. Later on, it is just as important that the rationale of decisions that are made and procedures that are put into practice be understandable and known to all. This does require an investment in explaining and communicating, but so much lighter than what is required to cope with a situation that has become needlessly tense.
The development of information technologies is rapidly changing how we work, communicate and live together. This can lead to improvements in efficiency and quality, but for these to materialize one should not only adapt our tools and processes, but even more crucially closely manage the changes that this implies in how everyone works. This means that as soon as a new information system is planned, it is essential to confer with users and carefully analyze how they will be impacted. Having done this, one can prepare to cope with the unavoidable changes in their role and work.
Soundly managing careers requires procedures that are explicit, transparent and sufficiently stable for people to know what to expect in the medium and long terms. As soon as recruitment starts, the job’s category should be in line with the work that will be performed. This is especially important for appointments as a scientific platform manager, as scientific staff with a career appointment, or as an academic, which surprisingly are sometimes used interchangeably.
Next, one should make sure that what can be expected in terms of pay adjustments and promotions be well known from the start, and that actual promotion possibilities do match what has been presented as a typical career. Finally, one must ensure that all procedures are open and fair, and perceived as such.
Our students and staff spend a large part of their time on our campuses (Liège, Gembloux, Arlon) and in our buildings. It is essential that these offer spaces for work and living adapted to everyone’s needs (working alone, group work, leisure…). Access to and between our campuses is also an important priority both for the quality of life of current members of the University community, and for being attractive to new students and staff. Just as essential, the University must be an example with respect to sustainable development and be uncompromising concerning security.
The tools that can be used for teaching are evolving rapidly; so are the needs and expectations of our students. Our teaching methods must evolve, both by the use of new technology (as e.g. in MOOCs or SPOCs), as well as by addressing new training needs, in particular life-long learning. However, that does not mean we should be running after novelty; more traditional methods still have their value. Our objective is to use a variety of approaches; our choices being guided by relevance and objectively assessed effectiveness.
For our research to progress, we need strong support for our researchers. This means relieving them of ancillary tasks (purchasing, organization, administration…) as well as providing strong support for obtaining external funding. The use of internal funds should be transparent and answer the most crying needs, in particular with respect to operating expenses. Finally, the University must forcefully and convincingly drive a campaign for an increase of research funding in French-speaking Belgium. This would also be in the general interest.