Will these conspicuous statements in TU Delft’s Vision on Education 2018-2024 fuel any change?

Updated: Jan 28

Many factors call universities to make choices on how to adapt their education: the accelerating pace of technological change, the globalisation, the accelerating digitalisation of economy and social interaction, the growth in talent mobility, the student’s interest to go well beyond perceived boundaries of traditional engineering roles, the blurring of boundaries between technical disciplines, the break-through of all kinds of digitally enhanced teaching and learning.


What kind of university TU Delft strives to be? How will TU Delft give its students ownership of their own future? What fundamental changes does TU Delft foresee in its engineering education for the next six years?

Vision on Education 2018-2024

In January 2018 TU Delft published its updated TU Delft Vision on Education as an integral part of the Strategic Framework 2018-2024. The documents are pretty abstract and it’s not a simple task to debone the texts to its essentials. I have therefore also tried to read between the lines and “read the air”.


This and my next post compare my vision statements in “Engineering Education in a Rapidly Changing World” (I use ∇ to refer to it) with my understanding and interpretation of the TU Delft documents. In this first post I highlight statements that, according to my expectations, will not have much constructive impact on the education, although they are conspicuous. In my second post “Six driving forces that will fuel change in TU Delft education 2018-2024I focus on driving forces that, I am pretty sure, will fuel change to the education.

Not so much has changed


The main characteristics of the Delft academic study environment are its egalitarian culture, the rigour of disciplinary knowledge and scientific foundations of engineering, their practical application, the design-centred learning, the self-starting and can-do culture with hands‐on mentality, the leadership in getting things done, the rich pallet of extracurricular activities for the students, the unconditional nexus between education and research, and the highly valued academic freedom for staff and students.

Ambitious students

“Engineering education has to be engaging, compelling and motivating, and create a learning community that stimulates all students to discover their talents” is what I wrote on ∇ p.46. In their vision TU Delft aims to educate students who have the ambition to make the most of their study period and develop themselves academically as well as personally. The vision emphasises “stimulating and supporting ambitious and enterprising students”. No longer does it focus on training students with an excellent academic performance alone.


Although this sounds as an interesting shift,it has the risk to deteriorate in a rat-race study culture for students who strive for the best career perspectives, taking on too much. A couple of days ago the “Interstedelijk Studenten Overleg”, a national umbrella organization for university student councils from different cities in the Netherlands, expressed their concern about the rise of more ambitious study cultures in the Netherlands. They are worried about the higher stress factors during the study, a steep rise of burn-outs for students and the expectation that academic studies will increasingly educate zombies rather than critical well-educated citizens.

Durable skills development in extracurricular activities

On p. 22 my vision reads “academic engineering education does a poor job of helping engineering students think about their own lives, their career goals, their desire for intimacy, or their plans for a productive and meaningful life”.


Unfortunately TU Delft seems to be in line with the above. The vision documents read as if the the societal engagement and development of durable skills are left up to the student and are mainly placed outside the engineering curricula. Students have to take control of their own development and learning process. For sure this has a positive effect on the student’s entrepreneurial attitude, but it sounds as an omission.


Let’s call it human literacy. It is one of the most important skills in engineering, and will be  even more so in the emerging age of robotics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. Every university should equip its students for the social milieu. It seems a poor job when a university more or less enforces its students to participate in extracurricular activities (social, sport or cultural activities in the city, student clubs, student project teams) for self-development, in order to acquire the most essential and durable skills they will need in the future profession to survive and thrive.

Low outside-in mentality

Engineering has always been a practice-based profession (∇ p. 48). The professional workplace is the environment in which the impact of technological change is felt most strongly. Universities should therefore address those strategies employers are seeking to accomplish and ways technology changes the shape of the industries. Students have to experience the real world of engineering and get a taste of genuine research, engineering and design by learning-by-doing, meet their academic role models from universities and practitioners from industry. That requires a strong and enduring partnership between industry and academic staff to ensure that curricula are not only aligned with the latest developments in research and science, but also in engineering practice.


The TU Delft Vision on Education or the chapter Students and Education of the Strategic Framework address the relations with industry or the enhancement of employability skills in engineering education to a minimum. May be they are already sufficient? Particularly in lifelong learning models of the future, I expect that universities will have to co-design curricula and courses in close parnership with employers and students. This will demand (much) stronger ties with engineering business than exist nowadays.


It is also common practice that the templates for recruiting academic staff are getting narrower and narrower (see post about future trends and developments in Europe). Taking this all together, I cannot help expecting that the current scarce opportunities for people with a non-academic background to bring their experience, tacit knowledge, role models and achievements in engineering practice to the classroom, will diminish even further in the coming years. Which is the opposite of what I expect students need to integrate the real-world experienes with academic learning, and prepare for their future profession and employability.

Are we missing something?

My vision is a loud call to make subjects like globalisation, diversity, world cultures, cultural agility, global ethics, leadership, business acumen, empathy and emotional intelligence equally important as maths and engineering sciences. Indeed, the TU Delft vision documents expect that the students will master these competences at graduation. But where will they learn them? The vision documents do not mention any driving force that would give these skills a more prominent place in the curricula.

What about Innovation and Employability?


Many accreditation standards baseline  innovation as the leading theme in Master programmes. The habitat of almost all engineering graduates is in innovation, where understanding the customer and truly care about their experience is essential. It strikes me that most Delft Masters fully focus on the acquisition of deep discipline-based knowledge and research, They forget about innovation. At best, creativity, entrepreneurial and customer thinking, enterprise systems engineering, etcetera are in the margin of the Master curricula, but often absent at all and available in extracurricular activities. The university does not indicate a tailoring of its education to these changing needs of today’s workforce.


The same applies to employability. Young graduates who have never been in contact with industry, are insufficiently prepared for the world of work. The vision documents miss supportive statements about employability skills for education and students. It does not necessarily mean they are not part of faculty policies. But the narrative tells that employability, like innovation, will not become a driving force for educational change in Delft in the coming six years. This could turn into a risk when employers become dissatisfied with the work-readiness of the graduates and favour graduates from more interdisciplinary, practice-based approaches with stacked learning models. It is something in which other universities may be moving ahead of TU Delft.

What about Community?

Community is the third cornerstone for tomorrow’s programmes (∇ p.61). The TU Delft vision documents address the importance of creating a sense of belonging on the campus for staff and students. They aim to create an inclusive atmosphere and ensure the integration of Dutch and foreign students, while maintaining the unique Delft’s identity and cherishing the roots in the Dutch cultural and scientific heritage.


The university is going to  develop a new vision for its campus “UniverCity Delft”, taking into account that knowledge is increasingly available online, student communities mainly connect through social media, and the academic community is individualistic and loosely coupled in silo’d faculties and departments. The modern campus has to offer added value in attractive learning spaces that evoke the teaching staff to implement effective ways of teaching and coaching, and support students in their collaborative and applied learning process, by enabling a transfer of knowledge to the contexts of real life.


I expect the nature of our education, with applied learning and hands-on work in makerspaces and research labs, will remain a leading element on the future campus. Whether or not the new campus vision will develop into a driving force for educational change, very much depends on its content that is still to be defined.

Epilogue

The vision documents are high level guidelines about what kind of university TU Delft strives to be and what and how they foresee the preparation of the graduates for fast-changing professional careers in engineering. Since decades the university has focused on equipping students with deep discipline-based knowledge and left the development of the wider professional skills and the preparation for good employability to the early years of their professional career. The narrative in Delft’s vision documents clearly shows this will not change in the next six years.


It remains to be seen whether that is the right choice for preparing graduates for a future, where artificial intelligence will increasingly take over routine and non-routine cognitive tasks from the engineering professionals. I foresee a need to educate our students to think and act in ways that cannot be imitated by intelligent machines, and to prepare them to do what machines cannot. We have to liberate the students from career models that will soon be outdated. And have to complement our traditional education that focuses on the mastery of deep technological knowledge and understanding of what technology can do, with more experiential learning to understand what technology cannot do.


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Wilnis, The Netherlands

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