New rector has plans to wake up ‘sleeping beauty’ at Bruges college

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Series Details Vol.7, No.39, 25.10.01, p17
Publication Date 25/10/2001
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Date: 25/10/01

By Rory Watson

PIET AKKERMANS is only a few months into his five-year term as rector of the College of Europe in Bruges.

But already the 59-year old Dutch academic is preparing to wield a new broom.

His aim is to ensure that the education and experiences offered to today's students are as relevant as they were when modern Europe's first experiment in international education was established four years after the end of the dark days of World War II. "The College is a good institution. But it is also a sleeping beauty and one of my many tasks is to make sure that it does more than it did in the past," he explains.

He is looking to develop new, shorter courses for executive training which could be run in conjunction with the traditional ten-month postgraduate scheme. The latter offers programmes in European law, economics, politics and administration, and European advanced interdisciplinary studies.

Other changes are designed to improve efficiency. They include welding the two separate intranet systems used by Bruges and its Polish sister campus at Natolin, near Warsaw, into one mutually compatible unit.

He also has in mind ideas to raise the College's profile in its home city and to develop contacts with the local community.But perhaps the most radical innovation this former rector of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam is contemplating is the introduction of a quality assessment scheme for staff, students and the overall organisation. "They are good, but they are not used to standing in front of the mirror and taking stock of themselves," he explains. However, despite trying to move with the times, the College still has difficulty portraying itself accurately to outsiders. Many see it as an elite multinational finishing school for would-be Eurocrats that has nurtured a network of almost Masonic proportions across the continent.

True, a significant number of graduates are now EU officials. A recent survey of 2,740 former students (out of a total of some 5,300 in the alumni association) reveals that 585 work in the EU institutions. The vast bulk are in the European Commission, where their ranks include the institution's secretary-general, David O'Sullivan, and directors-general such as Alex Schaub (competition) and Fabio Colasanti (enterprise).

In addition, anywhere up to 15 of the 20 commissioners' cabinets will contain a Bruges graduate. But a detailed profile of the College's alumni indicates that only 21 per cent go on to work for the EU institutions. The biggest group - 36 per cent - are in the service sector in law firms, banks, consultancies and the media.

A further 17 per cent make a career in government service. Between them, Bruges and Natolin (where there are currently some 80 students and the aim is to increase that number to 250) form probably the biggest training ground for institutional builders and civil servants in central and eastern Europe.

Other major areas of interest to graduates are academia (13 per cent) and industry (9 per cent). The careers chosen by graduates reflect the College's gradual move away from a purely academic approach to a more rounded education that includes aspects of international management.

Interpersonal skills are important and students have to be able to integrate successfully in a multinational environment. As one former graduate puts it: "The aim is to make managers more diplomatic and diplomats more managerial". The College is not an elite establishment for EU nationals. Each year some 40 nationalities are represented among the 300 or so students. Moreover, the board of governors includes a representative from each of the 13 EU applicant countries as well as one per member state.

Nor is it necessary to be rich: 87 per cent of the students have scholarships. As he settles into his new surroundings, Akkermans, whose initial academic training was in Latin and Greek before he specialised in the relationship between law and education, is clearly relishing the change. "The move from Erasmus University, where I had 20,000 students and a staff of 3,500, to here, where I have 273 students in Bruges and 76 in Poland, is a wonderful change. "It is a lovely small institute. You have direct contacts and the real assets are the students," he says.

Piet Akkermans is the new rector of the College of Europe. Article forms part of a supplement on European studies.

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