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Faculty of Social Sciences

Faculty of Social Sciences

Bert Steenbergen, vice dean, and Suzanne Boelens, Administrative Director

“We want society to benefit from our teaching and research”

With some 5,500 students, the Faculty of Social Sciences is the largest faculty at the university. This has its good sides, but vice dean Bert Steenbergen also calls it “a challenge”. The intake can vary greatly per study programme, Administrative Director Suzanne Boelens remarks: “From 600 first-year students in Psychology to about 50 in Cultural Anthropology & Developmental Sociology.”

“You see the workload increasing as teaching increases”, Steenbergen adds. "When the sector plans came along, we interviewed like crazy to hire 14 assistant professors and seven postdocs. We wanted to prevent the research side from suffering. That is precisely where we have now created more space. People we hire have both teaching and research appointments.”


Getting that large student population to return to campus en masse after the pandemic was no small task. “Some students found it easy to attend lectures online”, Steenbergen says. “In itself, online education also went quite well. But now we are encouraging our students to return to campus as much as possible: after all, it is also a meeting place. When everything took place online, we saw students struggling with questions of meaning. That’s why we now offer less hybrid education. Because if you offer lectures both in person and online, students who live in Nijmegen will come to campus, but those from Utrecht will think: ‘I’ll do it from home’.”

And what applies to students also applies to staff, Boelens notes. “Sometimes, it’s logistically easier to plug in your laptop for a meeting than to come here, with all the associated traffic jams, even though, as a growing faculty, we’re in a new, super nice building. Everyone may have a workspace, but they no longer have their own office.”

“Working online has moved at such a rapid pace that we are still searching for the best way to do it”

That new building was commissioned in 2021 but, according to Steenbergen, it has only been fully occupied since September 2022. “Now it is alive, now it is coming into its own. The building is open, and it has lots of glass and many places to meet; students need that too. There is seating everywhere, and you can see that students really want to be here. It is also the most sustainable building on campus.”


The pandemic did change the format of education somewhat, Boelens says. “Students are happy to be here together and go to classes on campus. But they also see the advantages of lecture recordings: they can replay the lectures at 1.5 times the speed two weeks before their exams. Or they can do that when they are sick. Working online has moved at such a rapid pace that we are still searching for the best way to do it.”

Steenbergen: “We’re conducting a pilot project with web lectures to see which things from the pandemic we want to keep and which we don’t. Because you want people on campus, but at the same time it’s quite handy to be able to replay lectures. We have three possible scenarios: no web lectures, livestream all lectures, or make the streams available two weeks before exams. We want to keep the good things while also adding substance to on-site academic education.”

Boelens is struck by the fact that educational results did not decline during the pandemic. “As a student, you still have to stay motivated and plan your day well on your own. All that is easier if you are expected to be here. I did hear regularly that there were fewer distractions: no parties, no festivals, no concerts. So students might have opened a book more often.”

“Student wellbeing is a real issue”, Steenbergen believes. “We appointed a wellbeing officer for students. Together with others at the faculty, the wellbeing officer organised activities like walks and lunches as much as possible. We just recorded a 100-day video that is shown in all lectures. It asks how students are doing after the first 100 days and tells them where they can go if things aren’t going well. The wellbeing officer stays in constant dialogue with students.”


Themes will play an important role in research in the near future, Steenbergen explains. “Over the last year, start-up and incentive grants and sector plan funds went to universities nationwide to reduce workloads and increase quality. For each sector, a national plan was drawn up with all faculties together to determine with respect to which themes that sector wants to develop itself further. The aim is to raise our profile as a knowledge-based country. For Social Sciences, five themes and one cross-disciplinary theme emerged from this. Each faculty could apply for each theme. The cross-disciplinary theme (pedagogy and teacher training study programmes) is mandatory; in addition, we have chosen ‘resilience in youth’, ‘the human factor in new technologies’ and ‘social inequality and diversity’.

“NOLAI is one of the greatest successes, and we are proud of it”

We have since received the corresponding sector plan funds. We will use them for the cross-disciplinary theme to conduct research on higher education, so we are also researching how best to design our own education. We can immediately implement the results from the research to benefit our own students.”

Improving primary and secondary education is also on the research agenda. “Associate Professor Inge Molenaar is director of NOLAI, the National Education Lab AI”, says Boelens. “She secured a large growth fund grant worth €80 million. That is one of the greatest successes, and we are proud of it. NOLAI is investigating the use of AI in secondary and primary (special) education. How are we going to design that properly? We are on the eve of significant developments, and it is important to explore what it should look like later. Much is already possible in practice, but how do you apply it pedagogically, didactically and in an ethically responsible manner in education? That is what NOLAI is going to investigate and put into practice.”

“Education has to come up with its own questions”, Steenbergen adds. “NOLAI brings together science, education and the business world. It is a collaboration in three areas: on the pedagogical side through the Faculty of Social Sciences, on the technical side with the Faculty of Science, and on the ethical side with Philosophy. It includes staff from Maastricht University and Utrecht University as well as HAN University of Applied Sciences (in Arnhem and Nijmegen). A large number of school boards and the business community have also joined in.”

“People are sitting more and more, and we are trying to reverse that tide by keeping people active”

Social Impact

Research on the application of AI in education can have a noticeable social impact, but there is more research taking place that affects practice. “The Active Living research group is a focal point of our faculty”, says Steenbergen, who himself is involved in the research group. “For example, we secured a grant to encourage pre-vocational pupils to move more. People are sitting more and more, and we are trying to reverse that tide by keeping people active.”

Boelens cites another example. “We also have a Baby and Child Research Centre that does scientific research on how children in their first six years develop in a variety of areas. That was in the news a lot last year.”

“It also encourages us – irreverently put – to come down from our ivory tower and let society benefit from our education and research. Quite a few of our research staff write pieces in opinion magazines or appear on radio and TV.”

“You don’t necessarily have to get involved in the public debate to have a social impact”, Steenbergen says. “NOLAI has impact mainly because it leads to directly applicable developments in, and possible products for, education. Actually, impact takes shape in every piece of education and research.”


The Faculty of Social Sciences has set ambitious sustainability goals, in line with Radboud University’s strategy. “Our faculty will focus on embedding sustainability in education and research in the coming years”, Steenbergen explains. “We want to educate a generation that can contribute to reducing or solving global problems. That is why the faculty encourages staff to integrate sustainable development into their work. In the free course SDGs in Higher Education, staff members learn about sustainability and sustainable development. They also reflect on the importance of sustainable development in (higher) education and how this relates to their expertise. In addition, they develop a strategy to integrate and link sustainable development with their own programme, course, teaching or work.”