New Tasks for Polytechnics

and Colleges in Flanders

Mr. Paul Cottenie

Coordinating Commissioner of the Flemish Government


The revolution in information and communication technology (ICT) is as important as the advent of the steam engine and the automobile. The innovative shock is impressive. No developed country can afford to lag behind. It is thus of vital importance that Europe mobilises all its powers in order not to miss the boat. Education plays a crucial role in this.

This ICT revolution is very demanding, not only for lecturers and students, but also for educational institutions, the authorities and the business world.

Moreover, education no longer has a monopoly on knowledge production due to the consolidation of education and the accelerated globalisation of the knowledge economy. Other knowledge suppliers are coming forward as well.

The view on learning is changing as well, with the concept of life-long learning meaning that no one ever completely finishes studying. Currently, no clear distinction is to be made between the years sitting at a school desk and the years at the workplace In that context, higher education will have to provide more and better services for its graduates. We are thinking here of the updating of the acquired knowledge, i.e continuing education, and partnership in other tasks such as training and research.

As far as the approach in Flanders, and in the polytechnics and colleges in particular, is concerned, I must start by explaining that the Communities in Belgium became full authorised for the education policy as of 1 January 1989. As a result, Flanders has been able to formulate its own plans for education.

The predominant accents in this naturally relate to what is going on internationally. We not only look at what our neighbouring countries are doing, we do not just listen to the desires of the business world and employers in Flanders and abroad, but we also try to anticipate the developments coming upon us at break-neck speed.

From this angle, Flanders is currently taking action on 2 fields, i.e.

1. the important expansion of the mission of the polytechnics and colleges and

2. the innovation in higher education and the introduction of ICT into education;


We will now take an in-depth look at these two areas of activity.

Expanding the mission of the Polytechnics and colleges

One of the most noteworthy policy choices, with an enormous impact on the structure of higher education in Flanders, was laid down in the "13 July 1994 Parliament of Flanders Act on polytechnics and colleges in the Flemish Community"'. This Act led to a drastic restructuring of the higher education college sector, regrouping some 170 institutions into just 29 polytechnics and colleges.

At the same time, the mission of these institutions in Flanders was expanded drastically, which was at least as important in the long term. Up to 1 January 1995, the remit of the polytechnics and colleges was confined to the provision of education at a higher level. In higher education other and broader tasks were the preserve of the universities.

As I mentioned earlier, the 13 July Act changed all this.

Art. 3 of the Act states:

"In the interests of society, polytechnics and colleges should be active in the fields of education at a higher level, social services and possibly project-based scientific research within the framework of collaboration with a university at home or abroad as well as with third parties."

And further:

"In order to fulfil their mission, polytechnics and colleges may perform any legal transactions, including the setting up of agreements with persons of private and public law."

End of quote.


It is this article in the polytechnics and colleges Act that has laid the foundation for the development by the polytechnics and colleges - with official backing - of a number of "new kinds" of activities. This has brought the mission of the colleges of higher education remarkably close to that of the universities in Flanders.

Social services

Defining the concept of "services" is not an easy task, for the term covers a plethora of meanings. However, the concept was explored and clarified in more detail through a number of stipulations in Acts and Royal Decrees.

When approving the "22 February 1995 Parliament of Flanders Act on the provision of scientific or social services by universities or polytechnics and colleges and on the relationships of universities and colleges of higher education with other corporate bodies" - commonly called the "Services Act" - the authorities gave more insight into what they had in mind.

This Services Act has three components:

1) The legislative framework for concluding agreements with third parties to introduce scientific or social services;

2) The creation of a legal foundation by means of a Parliament of Flanders Act for participation in spin-off companies and specification of the conditions universities/ Polytechnics and colleges must comply with;

3) Regulations governing the relationships of universities and polytechnics and colleges with non-profit making organisations and other corporate bodies active in and around universities and polytechnics and colleges.

Thanks to this Act, the polytechnics and colleges in Flanders have been given a remarkable amount of legal freedom to take on new tasks and challenges. But as always when interventions of such measure occur, a certain "incubation period" is required before one - in this case the polytechnics and colleges - can fully flesh out the new challenge. This is due to a number of causes:

- The lack of any tradition in the matter.

- As a consequence of the significant merger operation in 1995, management boards in polytechnics and colleges in Flanders have had their hands full with internal restructuring in recent years.

- The culture prevalent in the polytechnics and colleges is not aimed at making a profit.

- Often there is still not enough staff to realise the new and broader mission. Lecturers are still too subject-bound.

- Adequate resources are not always available.

Within the framework of a study day organised in March last year, the VEV (Flemish Economics Association) has taken a closer look at the importance of contract activities (contract teaching and research). For this purpose, the VEV assessed certain findings by surveying the polytechnics and colleges.

Of the 29 polytechnics and colleges of higher education in Flanders that were contacted, 20 responded to the survey. 15 confirmed that they had recently introduced contract teaching. Most lecturers involved performed these tasks part-time and usuall in a few days or weeks per year.

Contract teaching is provided in a variety of sectors. Thus, at the request of the authorities, companies and social-profit organisations, polytechnics and colleges provide contract training in the fields of economics, paramedicine, psychosocial study and computing. The target group itself is also diverse. Usually it involves office staff and executives, but many teachers and school principals also follow contract training at polytechnics and colleges.

The VEV also questioned the respondents on what they considered to be the basic conditions for successful contract teaching. The following replies were given:

- sound preparatory market research;

- assessment of training needs;

- a good, extensive, high-quality and practical offer and the facility to expand this;

- appropriate communication to notify the correct target group of the range of courses;

- the expansion of supporting structures and positions within the college of higher education;

- the provision of sufficient time for the development, tailoring and implementation of contract training;

- a clear demarcation of the content;

- voluntary participation by co-workers;

- fair reimbursement.

As the principal bottlenecks inhibiting rapid and high-quality expansion of contract education and contract activities in general, the staff listed:

- inadequacy of the financial reward. Staff considered that it is currently more attractive to opt for a second job. As an alternative, they suggest a financially and fiscally attractive policy and the setting up of a collective "incentive fund" within the college of higher education itself.

- the staff status, which is considered to be insufficiently flexible.

The VEV itself is formulating a report to the polytechnics and colleges covering specific desires and recommendations. Since one may assume that the polytechnics and colleges will probably take these into account in the near future, they are listed below:

- The VEV considers it desirable that in theory a business can call on expert teachers from the polytechnics and colleges either part-time or full-time at any time of year by means of secondments of variable duration.

- Secondments need to be more flexible and should be possible for a few days per week or a few weeks per year.

- Professional attendance at courses provided under contract should be of added value to the business. In-service training and further education of the teaching staff should therefore be encouraged. As a result, lecturers will have to be able to submit guarantees of their expertise and competence.

- The provision of expertise also means that polytechnics and colleges should supply teaching materials and compile training packages tailored to individual companies.

- Knowledge networks should be developed. These serve, amongst others, to facilitate collaboration between sectoral educational funds and education providers inside and outside the education system.

- Finally, there is a need for follow-up and validation of every contract course. The VEV considers feedback, i.e. dissemination of know-how to co-lecturers, to be highly desirable. Such efforts should also be validated in higher education.

- Efforts relating to contract activities also need to be validated by including them in audits or visits.

Prolect-based scientific research

Next to the social services, the new mission of the polytechnics and colleges also includes project-based scientific research. It is noteworthy that the people issuing Parliament of Flanders Acts have expressly framed this component of the mission package for polytechnics and colleges as a partnership with a university at home or abroad or with third parties.

Although at first sight this could be seen as restrictive, practice shows that this approach can also provide added value. After all, the ability to collaborate with bodies experienced in scientific research, the ability to react to specific problems in the business world and the common quest for suitable solutions, the ability to attract or train specialist staff and to build up a network of contacts with businesses, laboratories and research institutions, all broaden the scope and action radius of polytechnics and colleges and result in a significant input of know-how.

Since the start-up and development of project-based scientific research on the part of polytechnics and colleges requires a certain financial input (release of staff, purchase of equipment, etc.), the Government of Flanders decided a few years ago to set up what is commonly known as the HOBU fund (Non-University Higher Education fund). HOBU fund: BEF 240 million/year.

Apart from initiating these very concrete research projects, polytechnics and colleges have been able - since a few years (since the Services Act) - to participate in partnerships, the social objective of which is to set up, operate and manage "incubation and innovation centres" or "research parks" - in analogy to the universities and sometimes but not necessarily always in co-operation with them.

An example of such an incubation and innovation centre is the UBCA (the Antwerp University Business Centre), at the University of Antwerp (UA). This UBCA aims, amongst others, at stimulating, supporting and guiding the establishment of small and medium-sized enterprises in the field of new technologies and associated services in the Antwerp region, at enabling the university, polytechnics and colleges and the business world in the province of Antwerp to co-operate more efficiently and, finally, at creating new, sustainable employment in the region.

Universities and Polytechnics and colleges in Flanders can also participate in partnerships the social aim of which is to provide capital, financial know-how or management know-how through spin-off companies. With a view to industrial or commercial operation, they can participate in partnerships that are spin-offs of business activities developed at universities or colleges of higher education. These new and challenging perspectives have been meeting a need since 1998.

An example of such an innovation partnership is the Antwerp Innovation Center (AIC), in which the University of Antwerp (the umbrella organisation of UIA, RUCA and UFSIA) and the Antwerp Polytechnics and colleges work together.

The AIC corporate body was set up partly with a view to putting the objectives of the above-cited UBCA (Incubation and Innovation Centre of Antwerp University) into practice. In addition to the university and the polytechnics and colleges, the founders include a syndicate of industrial partners and a syndicate of financial partners. Together, these partners would be responsible for a capital input (fund) of BEF 150 – 300 million. Once again, the intention is to optimise the chances of success of good, innovating projects (spin-offs) and to set up as many successful spin-offs as possible.

Polytechnics and colleges in Antwerp have been involved in the partnership since the very beginning, which is remarkable and encouraging, since it stimulates them to develop a business mentality. This will allow the polytechnics and colleges to participate dynamically in the creation of high-tech companies, in the support of SME’s – by means on know-how provision – and in the improvement preparation of start-up businesses for entrepreneurship by means of economic training packages, etc.

As far as setting-up research parks (scientific-industrial zones reserved for the intensive businesses) is concerned, the universities (but not yet the polytechnics and colleges) have a limited facility to be involved in the activities of research parks. The KUL (Catholic University of Leuven), for example, has been allocated a contingent of 48 hectares for the development of research parks.

Innovation in higher education - the introduction of ICT into the education system

The Flemish Council for Higher Non-University Education (VLHORA), which acts as an umbrella organisation and defends the interests of polytechnics and colleges in Flanders, set up a "Tertiary Education working group", which produced a document on 7 May 1999 setting out the need for flexibilisation as a means for anticipating social developments and featuring flexibilisation as the key concept in the integrated renovation process in higher education.

According to the working group, flexibilisation can be found in a multitude of domains. The most important are:

1. Access to higher education.

2. The content and development of the training programme.

Essential items include:

- upgrading "learning to learn" to a fundamental objective within each training course;

- putting general objectives in basic competencies with a broad scope of application into practice;

- modularising the course programmes, including differentiated educational routes and an efficient credit transfer system.

3. The learning environment.

Essential items in this are:

- the development of study methods other than ex cathedra education;

- the optimisation of distance learning;

- the use of technological innovations such as ICT;

- the development of the professional environment as a learning environment, e.g. through contract training.

4. The role and function of the teaching staff.

Flexibilisation implies the transformation from lecturer-controlled education to student-centred education. The education provider no longer transfers knowledge but becomes the assistant in the student's independent learning process.

In 1997, the Flemish authorities introduced an active Incentive policy on Innovation in Higher Education (STIHO). The aim is to support universities and polytechnics and colleges in realising their innovative efforts. The most significant policy initiative is the provision of financial stimuli through the co-funding of educationally innovative projects of polytechnics and colleges and universities. Moreover, the authorities have organised a number of other activities. By placing a discussion note regarding innovation in higher education on the Internet they tried to boost the debate concerning this matter.

On 21 April 1999, the Higher Education Administration organised a study day on innovation in higher education, where the policy intentions were explained and where a number of co-financed STIHO projects were presented by way of example. At present, this Administration is constructing an innovation Web site, where communication facilities as well as information will be provided to polytechnics and colleges and universities.

On 23 July 1997, the Government of Flanders approved the decree containing regulation of the procedure and the conditions for the subsidisation of innovation projects in the area of higher education. Projects must relate to co-operation agreements between two or more universities, between two or more polytechnics and colleges or between at least one university and one college of higher education.

These projects may comprise the following activities.

- the design and development of flexible, high-quality and appropriate learning environments;

- the design and development of new teaching methods and techniques;

- the development of databases which lecturers can use for the preparation of study materials;

- the development and production of generic electronic study materials and tests;

- the coaching and training of lecturers in dealing with the new education technology.

To date, there have been four application rounds. In 1997, 39 projects were submitted, 12 of which were approved. In 1998, the numbers were 44 and 10 respectively. For the financial year 1999, the available credit was raised from BEF 38.5 million to BEF 78.5 million, which enabled the Government of Flanders to grant approval to 21 of the 46 project applications submitted that same year. The fourth application round (2000 financial year) closed on 1 October 1999 and saw 48 project applications.

The integration of ICT into the learning process is seen internationally as an important means of effecting educational innovation. In this respect, Belgium is anything but a front-runner in the EU.

As a matter of fact, Europe as a whole is clearly lagging behind the United States. To give you an idea: the penetration of the Internet in Belgium amounts to 23% this year compared with 27% in Germany and the Netherlands. In Sweden and Finland it is already 49%. In general, the penetration level of the Internet in the EU is 23%, compared with 51% in the United States.

In the US alone, it is already expected that on-line registrations for education programmes will increase by 30 to 35% per year. The market for higher education programmes in the US is already worth 750 billion dollars.

Europe is gradually though very tardily becoming aware of its drastically lagging behind the US.

At the European summit of 23 March this year in Lisbon, the first question was "How can we stimulate our technological development? At the present time, we are behind the US. Here, for example, there are fewer Internet connections, the turnover in e-commerce (digital trading) is three times as big in America and there are also many more jobs in technology there".

In Lisbon, it was agreed that Europe must catch up by producing a Pan-European Network for energy, transport (TGV/HST) and telecommunications. The whole of Europe must be wired for interconnection. Internet costs must go down in order to encourage more connections, particularly for schools. All schools in the Union must be connected to the net by the end of 2001. An action plan will be set up for e-commerce. By 2005, everyone should be able to operate a computer. And the resources for scientific research must be bundled.

In February of this year, the Royal Flemish Academy of Arts and Sciences listed the crucial elements in this process of ICT-supported innovation in education at a colloquium on the information society in Flanders:

- a systematic approach to learning as a life-long process, with a clear insight into the functions of the successive phases in the learning pathway; everyone must be given a "lifetime opportunity" to take part in the information society;

- a shift from a teaching to a learning paradigm. The student takes the initiative and responsibility himself as much as possible; the lecturer becomes a guide;

- a redrawing of the contents and a social re-evaluation of the teaching profession, combined with an innovated teacher training programme;

- the outlining of optimal teaching scenarios (for teaching, learning, guidance, evaluation), combining the possibilities of contract education with those of the new technologies and traditional media;

- re-thinking of the organisation of schools and the education system according to the innovation in education;

- a balance between central policy actions for innovation in education and the stimulation of bottom-up initiatives;

- networking between schools (national and international) and the construction of communal support services (technical, logistical, teaching, administrative);

- co-operation between lecturers, publishers, technology companies (software and hardware), Internet and telecommunications operators and the authorities to reach workable, affordable and sustainable solutions in the field of educational software and Internet and Intranet applications;

- continuing attention for the hazards of further dualisation of society, and priority actions for less-favoured groups. Over-restrictive education leads inevitably to high drop out rates, poor rewards and few opportunities for further learning.


Europe is falling further and further behind the United States in the sectors of finance, telecommunications and media. At the same time there is a great, be it late, awareness that speedy development is required. In the EU, a relevant strategy has been initiated only two years ago. According to Professor Albert Angehrn of the prestigious French business school Insead, one sector continues to trail hopelessly behind: education. He states, and I quote: "Everything is organised too conservatively. People just do not want to accept the fact that education has to develop faster. In this respect there is an enormous gap between education and the rest of the economic system".

In Western Europe, two thirds of all employees follow work-related training. A growing number of them at the level of higher education. And yet the share of the universities and polytechnics and colleges in this market, which is worth billions, is only 8 percent. Despite the fine words about "maintenance contracts" for graduates, there is still very little show of any active policy on life-long learning in any institutions. In-service training courses do exist, but they hardly amount to anything as far as the contents and organisation are concerned.

Europe needs to be more businesslike in its dealings with ICT applications in education. If urgent inroads are not made into innovation in education, Prof. Albert Angehrn predicts that the Americans will be setting the tone for European education within a few years. He believes they will be setting up educational institutions in Europe, which will provide much better education than their European counterparts and attract the better or wealthier students. It is a matter of the survival of the fittest.

At the same time, billionaire Maichel Saylor claims that it will soon be possible to obtain a degree via the Internet. Saylor is making a case for setting up a high-class on-line-education institution where everyone in the world - if he gets his way - can get free education. Saylor has already set aside 100 million dollars for the project, which would be based in Washington, He invites all other Internet millionaires to join him.

The polytechnics and colleges in Flanders and Europe still have a Iong way to go in this turbulent education market. It is important that they become aware of this. In that sense, it is encouraging that, although still modestly, they are participating in the market of contract activities at an ever-increasing pace. In comparison with the competition, polytechnics and colleges have many strengths in this area. Companies look for "one-stop shopping", and polytechnics and colleges can cater this need with their broad range of services. Moreover, companies attach increasing weight to the acknowledged status of the training courses provided by polytechnics and colleges.

With regard to in-service training (contract education), the emphasis is still too heavily on the economic factor at present. The stress lies on in-service training for managers, who pay well for it. The rest of the field is virtually unknown territory as far as the polytechnics and colleges are concerned. The challenge awaits.

The share of project-based scientific research and social services is growing increasingly important in the Flemish polytechnics and colleges, be it slowly. An overtaking manoeuvre by study areas other than industrial sciences and technology is necessary in the short term in order to avoid further divergence of the two paths.

The lecturers play a major role in this. In recent years polytechnics and colleges in Flanders have been heavily occupied with mergers, with money and with the question of how to help more students gain their degrees faster. Discussions on the quality and flexibility of the lecturers have never been seriously considered,

In the future Flemish polytechnics and colleges will have to appoint lecturers who teach and guide students one or two days a week and are also employed or fulfil tasks at a university or company. Such lecturers should have a fine track record in research or teaching. They oversee their field of speciality and at the same time pick up work placement addresses and research assignments, thus giving education a boost and opening doors to society.

Policy makers expect that because of the scarcity in the labour market, lecturers will soon be working until they are 65. This entails specific problems. Polytechnics and colleges will have to provide their lectures with regular in-service training and refresher courses in their subjects. The polytechnics and colleges in Flanders will need to invest much more than they do at present.