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A Conversation: Mendeltje van Keulen

Mendeltje van Keulen is a force of nature, and she has a vision. At THUAS, she is leading the Changing Role of Europe Research Group, and as the Chairwoman of the University Council she “talks her guts out” to get things moving into the right direction for all of us. Before joining THUAS in 2018, Mendeltje worked at Clingendael Institute (an institute for international affairs in The Hague – go fix yourself an internship) for nine years, at the Dutch Parliament’s Committee on EU Affairs for eight, and in between campaigned to become a Member of the European Parliament. We talked to her about working, studying, and how to vamp up our education of applied sciences. Here is what Mendeltje had to say:


I will start by saying this: at a certain point in my life, my PhD supervisor at the time told me that if I wanted to be really happy in my professional life, I needed to work from a passion. Something that gives you energy. So, I advise to all our students to find something that they are truly enthusiastic about. For the past 20 years I was lucky to work on an issue that really makes me tick: European affairs in everyday life. Not in Brussels -that bubble is certainly not normal life- but about what does the EU mean for my family living here in a village in The Netherlands or for someone in the horticultural industry. That is why I am teaching about how the EU matters.


How did you develop your passion for the EU?

For me it was through education, or rather by realising the lack in my education. When I was, at first, an intern, and later a junior researcher at Clingendael (see, internship!), I found out that I did not know how the EU mattered for my work. So, I decided to go to Bruges for a Master’s, at the College of Europe, for them to teach me how it really goes. And they did, because they have practitioners there, people who devote a bit of their time to teach students, next to their career. Which is what I am doing now as well.


What made studying special for you?

The opportunity to work with international students. We all went through the same studies, but we were from different Member States, different backgrounds, yet we still did it together. That taught me what international studies were really like, how different we can be. But if you have a common goal you can work together. Still, sometimes that left me unsettled, when I had meetings scheduled with Spanish students and they were an hour and a half late, which is, as you know, frowned upon by Dutchies. They had not forgotten the meeting of course, and them being late had nothing to do with the substance, but that cultural divide is also part of European cooperation. Now, when I arrive five minutes late to a team meeting, people ask me ‘where have you been’ and I say ‘oh, in Spain’!


After you graduated, you worked in academia for a while and then changed into politics.

For my PhD at Clingendael I had a supervisor who said, ‘it is only a PhD, it is your driving license for the academic world, so get it and move on’. And then I found out that academic life at a research university is not the thing for me because I really like to reach out and connect people. And then someone said, ‘you have been very critical saying that national politicians do not understand the EU, civil servants do not, citizens do not, why do you not go and work at the [Dutch] Parliament for a while!’ And I did that for 8 years. Working in politics was addictive.


And then?

I got breast cancer. I thought, if I get healthy again, I want to work on connecting people and professionals in the same practical way I did working in the Dutch Parliament. Here at THUAS I can spread the message that European Studies is not just a theory, but you should also know how it is done in working practice. And I show professionals how they can contribute to education whilst improving their work with research assignments and internships. So, I am healthy, and I am back here, and I have been working here for two years now. And it is nice.


What is your vision for THUAS?

I want to prepare young people, who are 18, 19, or in their 20s for a professional career. They have to earn money in a world undergoing a significant transformation, that is, globalisation. I would like this school to prepare young people for adjusting to such changes by combining book-based knowledge with exposure to people who are working; and to continuously exchange between practitioners and academics. That is what we need.


How good is THUAS at being applied?

There are programmes that are notably applied, quite logically. PABO [studying to become a teacher] for example is naturally applied. You are doing your internships, you go work at a school. We also have health and dietary studies, we have Public Administration, they have assignments from real working practice, for example municipalities. Other programmes are working on a curriculum reform, like European Studies and Law. I believe the applied part should be central to the educational programmes, because not being a (research) University is our strong point. We should try to get to levels where professionals are well known within the programme, and well used, like I did in my new elective Democracy in the European Union for ES which I developed with Stefanie Schuddebeurs from www.buro-eu.nl. I want to see research turned into assignments, invite professionals here, or send students there. That is my mission.


You are also the Chairwoman of the University Council [Hoogeschoolraad in Dutch]. Many students know little about the Council, and those who do still do not know how to use the Council to address problems.

That is sad to hear but I recognise that reality. There are quite a few challenges, small but important things that hinder the visibility of our work, such as the seemingly impossible request which we have voiced since September to have the work of faculty and central Councils placed more prominently on the intranet homepage. As for addressing the Council with issues: make sure to bring any issues to the programmes, to the management, to the General Council, to the Faculty Council where your peers sit and represent you, and say ‘listen, this is a problem, can you help us?’. The more sides support an initiative, the better chances that it will be followed through. It really appears that within the institution the most essential challenge is not the lack of financial resources, but the lack of problem-solving capacity. I went to talk my guts out about this, to encourage problem solving, and we should use every opportunity to reconstruct this University in this aspect.


What needs to change?

What I would wish for in our great institution is the ambition of managers to change things tomorrow. Take up challenges, do pilots and listen to each other as there are many different good practices. Obviously, I understand that change will not be effective tomorrow, but maybe next week. We should meet halfway with an end game of effecting meaningful change.


There is big change on its way! Leonard Geluk, the President of THUAS, is leaving soon. Five out of seven faculty directors are women, but the Board is all male. Is that going to change?

I am a member of the candidate committee, and my goal is to recruit the best available candidate. And I really hope that there is a diverse group to choose from. I would like to have someone who radiates energy and ambition and passion for this school. THUAS is not yet mentioned as the best University of Applied Sciences, we are not particularly active in getting funding and we have a lot to do in terms of applied research and it should hurt us all and the person who takes up this challenge. Let’s change things now!

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