Tom Elfring, dean
“In Nijmegen, having an impact – making a difference – is important”
“Fortunately, people are eager to work with us”, Tom Elfring, dean at Nijmegen School of Management, notes with satisfaction. “Since I started as dean here two years ago, we have hired at least 150 people because of the increasing number of students”.
The faculty is also attracting people from abroad: “Of the staff, at least 30% come from abroad, and for students the figure is around 10–15%. We have an ‘onboarding’ course, so all our new people understand how things work here. That was more or less automatic in the past, but we are now growing so rapidly that we have to move from an informal to a somewhat more formal organisation. We are busy clarifying processes and decision-making. That takes time and energy because those structures were not there. Recruitment will continue in the near future. Fortunately, this means that the high workload for lecturers and professionals is easing.”
The growth of business administration and economics study programmes is a national phenomenon, but Elfring sees reasons why students choose Nijmegen specifically. “Our faculty is special in the sense that we are different from other business administration or economics study programmes with our various disciplines. We also have disciplines such as political science, public administration, geography and planning and environmental studies, with Bachelor's and Master's programmes in those disciplines. This offers students opportunities to take interdisciplinary electives in areas such as the circular economy, sustainability and conflict studies. The faculty has outstanding ‘classic’ Master’s specialisations as well as interesting interdisciplinary Master’s specialisations in areas such as climate change and migration. It is precisely this unique profile that attracts students. We now also have a new interfaculty Master’s programme in which we train people to guide SMEs in the transition to sustainability. There is a need for that. The Faculty of Science looks at that from a technological point of view, and we approach it from a managerial point of view.”
The quality of the study programmes is another factor in choosing to study in Nijmegen. “A few of our programmes were named best in the Netherlands in the Keuzegids 2022, and study programmes from our faculty won bronze medals in Elsevier’s survey.”
“We had more than 400 PhD candidates as guests from 65 different countries; that was quite a highlight”
The internationalisation of the faculty enjoyed a nice boost last summer, says Elfring. “We organised a summer school for PhD candidates: two weeks with a wide range of courses on social science research methods and techniques. We had more than 400 PhD candidates as guests from 65 different countries; that was quite a highlight. We did this in collaboration with MethodsNET. They were looking for a place to organise the courses, as well as people who could teach some of the courses. The fact that they chose us to do this means that we really do operate at a global level. It is one thing to have the intellectual infrastructure, but the physical infrastructure must also be in place. After all, you have 420 PhD candidates on your campus that you need to house.”
Back after the lockdowns
That event would not have been possible during the last lockdown. Elfring recalls how difficult it was to get university life back on track. “When the lockdown ended last calendar year, it was disappointing how few students returned. They had clearly expressed that they missed in-person education, but of course, in the meantime, they had built another life. We heard these stories from other faculties too. We had thought that students would come back en masse, but that did not happen.
“Our guiding principle is that students come to campus for education. Our educational vision states that interaction among students and between students and lecturers is essential for the learning process. So this academic year, we have made it very clear that students are really expected to be present in person. Now they are returning en masse to our Elinor Ostrom building, also known as the EOS building. We understand that having lectures recorded can also be very convenient, but we’re reluctant to do so, precisely to avoid students sitting at home. We actively intervened and explained why we think it’s important for them to come to campus.”
“Our educational vision states that interaction between students and lecturers is important for the learning process”
To encourage students to return, more activities are also taking place on campus, such as ‘sandwiches at EOS’ and ‘ice cream at EOS’. By now, the study associations have more members than before, says Elfring. “We also looked at whether we could make our building more attractive for longer stays by adding lounges and additional study areas. Board members from the associations are always present in our EOS building, so students can drop in to ask questions or have a cup of coffee. In this way, we not only try to facilitate taking courses, but also everything around them. This also fits in with the campus policy: it should be a good place to be.”
And that approach has been successful. “There was a world of difference between May and September of last year. The students also report that they gain new insights from conversations with fellow students. We do see differences between the year cohorts, also in the study behaviour acquired.”
The staff are also happy that face-to-face meetings are possible again, Elfring points out. “In addition to that, people also like to work from home regularly. That’s understandable, especially if you want to write in peace. The discussion about policy on hybrid work is still ongoing. We would like our staff to be here in person again; it’s important for community building.”
Research at the faculty continued as usual over the past year, says Elfring. “We did quite a large number of externally funded projects. The number of PhD candidates has grown; we have caught up in that sense. We also won a couple of prestigious grants.”
“We are a different management school, with a unique profile. That is precisely what attracts students and staff”
Impact and visibility
The faculty has also raised its profile in the outside world. “Last year, we established an international advisory board of 15 people from business, government and NGOs in the Netherlands and abroad. That board advises us on matters such as the new strategy. In connection with international accreditations, I attended a conference in America, and I met a group of alumni in New York and Washington to ask why they had chosen to study in Nijmegen. They explained that our study programmes prepare people well for international jobs. One of them, a bank director, even said he would rather have an alumnus from Radboud than from one of the top business schools in America. Why? We train people to be critical thinkers. I thought that was an eye-opener, and something to convey: you don’t have to go to Amsterdam or Harvard for your Master’s programme to get a good job in America.”
The critical thinkers from Nijmegen are also visible in the public debate, Elfring knows. “We’re happy to contribute to that, for example, when it comes to sustainable democracy. The fact that we have another management faculty plays a role in that. We train critical academic professionals who also learn about areas such as democracy, sustainability and circular economics. Together with the Faculty of Science, we are part of the Radboud Centre for Sustainable Challenges.”
That drive to participate in the social debate is in keeping with the faculty’s mission, Elfring believes. “We are not a traditional management school. Our mission is: ‘responsible governance for sustainable societies’. For example, we make a strong case for a humane working environment. And we look at digitalisation: it may offer many opportunities, but it also has a dark side. For instance, it can lead to inequality. We are discussing that with other, more traditional management faculties.”
That attitude leads to a different approach to research and education. “Instead of focusing on shareholder value, we want to emphasise the fact that there are more stakeholders and that we offer a diverse range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary study programmes. We are a different management school, with a unique profile. That is precisely what attracts students and staff.
“We are continuing to flesh out our profile: critical and interdisciplinary. In Nijmegen, having an impact – making a difference – is important. We train students to make a visible contribution to society.”