5 September 2019

Kiran Patel says farewell to FASoS

Kiran Patel laughs, only a little apologetically: “The offer was simply too good!” He is leaving Maastricht University for the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, where he will hold the chair in European History and establish an interdisciplinary research centre on Europe and European history. Here, he reflects on his time in Maastricht.

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Critical minds

Patel sees cooperation and interdisciplinarity as vital in an age of specialisation. This September, FASoS will launch the new bachelor’s programme in Digital Society, in which critical thinking will go hand in hand with computing. Graduates will not only be trained in understanding algorithms, but also have a firm grounding in philosophy, history, politics and culture.

“When we started thinking about the programme, we talked to stakeholders from politics and industry, and they all said this is exactly what we need: a bridge between understanding computing and reflecting on its social implications.” This, to Patel, is precisely the strength of a faculty like FASoS, where the humanities and social sciences also draw on concepts from STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Informal but too many forms

He is concerned by the increasingly polarised discourse on Dutch higher education. “It would damage the country’s standing”, he says, if the pendulum were to swing too far from internationalisation and English as a language of instruction. “Dutch universities are attractive to international scientists and students precisely because they are so open.”

The more the academic sector expands, the greater the need for transparency and public accountability. Patel understands this. In his roles as head of department and associate dean for research, however, he has been forced to impose an ever-increasing administrative workload on colleagues he considers to be already operating at their limit. Some reforms are useful, but there is a limit, he says. “The Dutch are good at inventing bureaucratic processes which don’t exist in other countries.” The problem derives partly from the political urge to justify higher education and research to taxpayers.

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Patel makes the comparison with his native Germany. “There, the education minister is less powerful and the funding bodies are more autonomous. As a result they’re better insulated from kneejerk political reactions aiming to pre-empt public criticism.” He questions the utility of more bureaucracy. “We know from all sorts of studies that you can’t legislate for innovation. The more you try to plan it, the less you’ll get it.”

Cracks in the consensus

What about that other bastion of bureaucracy, the European Union? “The EU has evolved in fits and starts. Despite all the crisis talk, even very recently we’ve seen a deepening of European integration.” There may be cracks in the consensus underpinning the project – and Patel admits to having many concerns about the EU – but he holds up the euro crisis and Brexit as examples of the Union taking a relatively unified position.

There are other positives, too, such as the role played by the European Commissioner for Competition in protecting citizens from corporate interests. More than anything, the parting UM professor is heartened by the EU’s more prominent place in our collective consciousness. “For the longest time, people cared little about the EU. Today, it’s recognised as a forum for decision-making on crucial issues. So it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the EU is becoming ever more politicised.”

By: Florian Raith (text), Paul van der Veer (photography)