Hans van Ginkel

Hans van Ginkel

Hans J.A. van Ginkel graduated from Utrecht University, the Netherlands: in 1966 M. Sc. in geography and history; in 1979 Ph. D. in social sciences, both cum laude.

He is the Rector of United Nations University, Tokyo, and Under-Secretary-General of United Nations, since September 1997. He was elected President of the International Association of Universities (IAU, Paris) in August 2000 and served until July 2004. He is Vice-chair of the Board of Trustees, of the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT, Bangkok), Member of the Academia Europaea; Honorary Fellow of the Institute for Aerospace Survey and Earth Sciences (ITC, Enschede); and was the longest serving university rector in the history of the Netherlands at Utrecht University, 1986-97.

Holds honorary doctorates from Universitatea Babes-Bolyai, Romania (1997), State University of California, USA, (2003), University of Ghana, Ghana (2005) and Technical University of Zvolen, Slovakia (2006). His fields of interest are urban and regional development, population, housing studies, science policy, internationalization and university management. He has published widely, and has contributed extensively to the work of various international educational organizations.

Hans van Ginkel presented the paper Institutional and Political Challenges of Accreditation at the International Level, with his advisor Marco Antonio Rodrigues Dias, at the 3rd International Barcelona Conference on Higher Education `Accreditation for Quality Assurance: What is at Stake?´ held in November 2006.

Hans van Ginkel talked about the Higher Education System and UNU goals for the next five years, giving importance to relevance and new topics in a global world.

What are the UNU’s main objectives for the next 5 years?

There are many different topics that are important but I will talk about five of them. The first one is that UNU is going to set up an institute in Kuala Lumpur focused on what we call global health. The question is how can least developed countries be helped to design a national health plan to give medical care to poor people who live a long way from the capital? To achieve this you need to have good geographical distribution, medical professionals, to train people at different levels occupying the positions in that network, and to develop a financial arrangement that can be managed for those least developed countries.

There is a second topic and this has to do with the sustainable future of urban areas. Many people still dream of living in a green space. However, that is completely against trends. When people have the chance to choose, in particular younger people, they want to go to the city because there are more opportunities there. In fact, in the near future two thirds of the world population will live in cities. The question is, then, what kind of cities? They cannot be mega cities, with the environmental problems usually related to these. At the same time, we have new means of transportation, so incredibly we will see that the opposition between rural and urban spaces will disappear, and that, as a consequence, we will have what we call sustainable urban futures. These urban areas will be split into different centers, with the development of higher and lower density spaces.

The third topic has to do with helping developing countries to improve further in a world where migration, identity, cultural diversity and the future cohesion of society are important aspects. Nowadays we can see that the total population is increasing, but a part of the world where people live is shrinking. As a consequence there will be large migratory flows, and, as Spain knows very well, great pressure will be put on borders.

There is a fourth topic, and this concerns the true relation between education and development. Intuitively we think that more education links to a higher level of development, but in many developed countries we see that education does not always lead to more economic activities or more effective activities. This means there has to be a kind of adaptation between what we teach and what people can do in their economic systems.

Perhaps the last goal for UNU in the next five years will be a way to truly promote peace. Nowadays the concept of war has changed. Wars are no longer between countries, but between groups of people. This makes it very clear that peace must be in people’s minds, and that we must work on how each individual can contribute to it. When we look at Europe we have the impression that we are actually going in the opposite direction. You look at politics and there is a very low level of acceptance of different opinions. We really have to change that attitude.

How does the UNU strengthen and promote collaboration among universities?

We are of course a very special type of university. In the first place, we are a think tank for the UN. Certainly, education is a major element for building peace and contributing to development. In that sense we have tried to strengthen innovative elements in universities, and, in that sense we have been behind the idea of GUNI. Many people in universities put their talent into working for companies or governments, but this creativity is not often used to improve universities. One of the questions that GUNI is looking at is how to make use of the talent within universities to improve them.

Beyond that, we are trying to create networks of universities on specific topics, for instance nutrition. Can we improve the quality of daily food, in particular in the least developed countries? We are also acting on the peace issue, creating networks of universities for building peace, in particular in countries where there have been violent conflicts in the past, trying to help them overcome those conflicts.

The WHEC 98+10 (World Higher Education Conference 98+10) is coming up very soon. From UNU’s perspective, what are the (3-5) main higher education challenges for the next decade?

I think that it reminds us of the issue that we developed in 1998, and that is the relevance of universities. Of course quality is part of relevance, and if university activities have no quality they cannot have any relevance. At the same time, it is clear that with not enough access the relevance of what universities are doing is diminished. But to increase their relevance for people’s daily lives, what are our research priorities, in what direction is our research going?

A second challenge is how can we strengthen, with coherence, an increasingly different shape of higher education system. We have no good strategy to tackle coherence in the Higher Education System, and this is related to the relevance issue. When people talk about university they think of the Sorbonne or Oxford models from the Middle Ages, but actually Higher Education institutions are very different in character. In this context, when we talk about research for example, some of them have a lot of research, some have little, some are focused on specific topics and others are not. For example, when you look here at Barcelona, when you compare the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya with the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, the Universitat de Barcelona, or the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, you see that there is an increasingly diverse system to take care of very diverse needs.

Another challenge is to achieve sustainable development to get more coherence and consistency in primary school and secondary school right up to the higher education system. Again, this has to do with the relation between education and development. Sometimes there are university professors with no knowledge of what has been taught in primary or secondary education.

Finally, there is the issue of cultural dialogue and peace, as Mr. Federico Mayor Zaragoza explained at his intervention in this conference. Many people are educated at universities, and trained to debate. A debate is in general a kind of exchange of arguments to be won. Sometimes people think that speaking louder helps more than listening carefully to the arguments of the other side. This has to be changed. To contribute to peace, one has to be able to listen to the opposing arguments. I think universities are not very good in preparing students for that. Nowadays we have lots of foreign students in universities, and I think that actually, even in Europe and the United States, these students are clustered together according to where they come from, and moreover, local students are actually less open to receiving them because they have the feeling that foreign students can go by themselves. So it's a missed opportunity because we could learn from each other and then establish a dialogue.

How does UNU promote the reforms needed for higher education to adapt to global and local needs, and to strengthen its mission and results?

As I said, there are the topics I talked about in answer to the first question. As we are not funded by the UN we must do our own fundraising, with countries’ support, in order to carry on the four initiatives I mentioned before.

The initiative that has to do with dialogue, cultural peace, identity, migration and diversity could be located in Spain. The institute in Kuala Lumpur, for which I have signed an agreement with Malaysia, includes financial arrangements with the government. We would also like to develop a topic focused on democracy in Algeria: how education can really contribute to democratic attitudes in the population. Algeria is a very good country to focus on for this kind of topic because of its history. In China we are talking about sustainable urban futures as a topic. At the same time we want to strengthen GUNI, and in particular to change the governments’ idea that universities can change only with laws or new financial regulations. There are many good examples where you can see that this is not the case.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry of Business and Employment. Department of Research and Universities
  • Generalitat de Catalunya. Ministry for Foreign Action and Open Government