Foundation for Higher Education in Limburg (SWOL)
A university in Limburg?
Foundation for Higher Education in Limburg (SWOL)

The role of the Foundation for Higher Education in Limburg (SWOL) in the establishment of Maastricht University

By Annemieke Klijn

A university in Limburg?

Maastricht University, initially named State University Limburg, was established in 1976, after a lengthy history of regional efforts. Since the early years of the twentieth century, Limburg has tried to attract a state university, or at least an institution of higher education. Such a ‘regional’ university served as a symbol of Limburg’s empowerment, after years of having been ‘underrepresented’ and ‘underdeveloped’ within national political and educational contexts. A university, so it was expected, would not only enhance the cultural and intellectual image of this region, but it might also serve as an economic stimulus. In the 1920s, Tilburg, Den Bosch, Nijmegen and Maastricht had engaged in a fierce competition to rake in a state sponsored Catholic university. Nijmegen won out, as in 1923 such a university was established in this more centrally located city.

After the Second World War, the discussion on the need for a university in Limburg was back on the agenda. Because the number of students was growing rapidly at the time, expansion of the nationwide university system was badly needed. In November 1957 the provincial government set up the Higher Education Study Committee (Studiecommissie Hoger Onderwijs), consisting exclusively of members of the KVP, the country’s large Catholic party, and in 1959 this committee advocated setting up a so-called atheneum illustre. This was part of system of higher education in which students could enrol up to the bachelor level (kandidaatsexamen). The committee was thinking of faculties of law, language and literature, philosophy, psychology, and later on, potentially, chemistry, physics and mathematics as well. Given the preponderance of Catholicism in the province of Limburg, it was only natural to have a preference for a Catholic institution, which might be affiliated with Catholic University Nijmegen. Maastricht was named as location because this old city was seen as the main cultural centre of Limburg. Given the location of Maastricht, it seemed relevant to the committee to give this proposed new facility of higher education a multi-language and European character. From the start, after all, Maastricht had been ‘a preeminent meeting place of Roman and Germanic culture’.

The government in The Hague responded negatively, however. The Committee for the Regional Diffusion of Higher Education (Commissie Spreiding Hoger Onderwijs) saw no use in setting up a kind of annex of Catholic University Nijmegen in Maastricht. Likewise, the economist Marinius Coopmans, in a booklet entitled Universitas Limburgensis (1962), appealed to the Dutch minister of Education and Science, Jo Cals (a KVP member), arguing for the establishment of a European university, which, in anticipation of ‘a unified Europe’, would deal with international political, technological and economic issues. His plea was ignored, however. The government decided to grant the right to set up several new curriculums to existing academic institutions in cities throughout the country, rather than in Limburg.

The Foundation for Higher Education in Limburg

New opportunities presented themselves only after Limburg gave up on its aim of getting a university with a Catholic profile. In 1964 Charles van Rooy, a KVP member who had served as minister of Social Affairs, was appointed Governor of Limburg, and he realized that his province should no longer hold on to the aspiration of attracting a specifically Catholic educational institution, also in light of the ongoing de-pillarization of Dutch society. Because Limburg was showing a rapid population growth, he felt that this province should again start a lobby for a university, also in response to the growing number of students nationwide. In this context and at the initiative of Van Rooy, on 8 November 1965 the Foundation for Higher Education in Limburg (Stichting Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs Limburg, SWOL) was set up. Its aim was to prepare the ground for the establishment of a university in Limburg by organizing a strong lobby towards the national government in The Hague, as well as by mobilizing the ‘Limburg community’ to start working actively an attracting a university. SWOL also saw it as its task to initiate collaboration and consultation with individuals and institutions in the nearby international region in order to achieve its goal. In this way the new foundation built on the earlier plea by Coopmans.

On 28 December 1965, SWOL met for the first time in the State Hall of the Provinciehuis in Maastricht. The general board was composed of 60 members: 59 men and  a few women, including  ‘miss’ Truus Kok, social worker with the Dutch mining company Staatsmijnen and also an MP for the KVP. The board members came from across the province: many professors, mayors, MPs and representatives from the business sector, such as Henri Gelissen, director of the Provincial Limburg Electricity Company. Van Rooy pursued a broad base of support as well as access to the national government in The Hague. SWOL board members also included Fons Baeten, an MP and KVP member, but also the political heavyweight Sjeng Tans, a leading figure in the Dutch Labour party (PvdA). Tans, a Catholic socialist from Maastricht who wanted to move away from the heavily religion-based party system in the Netherlands, saw it as a kind of rehabilitation that Van Rooy asked him to be on the board of SWOL. He was one of the few, if not the only person, on the extensive board who was not a member of the Catholic KVP. Even in 1957, Tans was still barred from the Higher Education Study Committee because as an active Labour politician he was unacceptable to the Catholic establishment in Limburg. In 1963 the militant Tans rose to the chairmanship of the PvdA, while in his role of MP he was known as an education specialist.

SWOL was a kind of ‘unified’ Limburg lobby, but, as stressed by chairman Van Rooy at the launch of SWOL, a new university in Limburg would equally have to serve non-Limburg residents of course. Less than two weeks before, on 17 December 1965, the minister of Economic Affairs, Joop Den Uyl (a member of the PvdA), announced the closure of the Limburg mines in the Municipal Theatre of nearby Heerlen. This made economic restructuring in Limburg all the more urgent, as also argued by Van Rooy. At the first meeting of SWOL he indicated that the university to be established would in fact play a crucial role in such economic restructuring. He was also thinking of setting up academic programmes in economics, law, sociology and psychology.

In late 1965 Van Rooy could not have surmised that six months later, in the summer of 1966, there was a discussion at the Dutch ministry of Education and Science about a possible eighth medical faculty in the Netherlands. The seventh medical faculty in the country had been assigned to Rotterdam in the spring of 1965. Yet the number of medical students and the need for doctors continued to grow quickly, which prompted the new discussion. To investigate the issue, the so-called Eighth Medical Faculty Study Committee (Studiecommissie Achtste Medische Faculteit) was set up in December 1966, chaired by Gerard van Walsum, a prominent Labour member.

A new medical faculty?

At the SWOL meeting of 12 January 1967, Tans got up to speak right away to inform those present that this eighth faculty was surely destined to become a reality. This is why from then on SWOL should start concentrating on finding ways to attract that new medical faculty. Tans argued that SWOL should stress in particular cultural-political arguments in favour of Maastricht, for such reasons were unique to Maastricht. Regardless of the significance of these social-economic arguments in favour of Limburg, the other candidates also put forward social-economic arguments. The competitors included (prospective) facilities of higher education in Tilburg, Eindhoven, Twente, the Apeldoorn-Deventer-Zutphen triangle and the Kampen-Zwolle combination.

SWOL responded swiftly, and in that same month of January 1967 it managed to present a paper on the founding of a medical faculty in Limburg as the first step towards establishing a university in Limburg (Nota inzake de stichting van de medische faculteit als begin van een universiteit). It put forward four arguments – of a medical, educational, social-economic and cultural-political nature – in support of the plea for the establishment of an eighth medical faculty as the first step towards a new state university in Maastricht. First, South Limburg had a pool of patients not yet integrated into the advanced levels of the medical training system. Next, educational diffusion was needed because the young people of Limburg were entitled to equal opportunity in education. The closure of the mines, moreover, made regional economic restructuring inevitable, whereby the university would help to fuel the economy. Finally, a university in Maastricht was ‘a matter of national self-preservation’: the Netherlands desperately needed a new university with a European orientation and Maastricht was ideally located on a cultural crossroads, close to the German and French-language institutions of higher education in nearby Aachen and Liege. SWOL in fact demonstrated its eagerness and enthusiasm by having purchased a building site for the new university already, with money from several subsidies and bequests.

In April 1967 SWOL presented no fewer than three reports. In one report (De omvang van een in Limburg te stichten universiteit) it was argued that the medical curriculum had to be supplemented with social sciences curriculums. In another report (De plaats van Zuid-Limburg in een spreidingsplan voor het Wetenschappelijk Onderwijs), SWOL sought to demonstrate that the number of potential students residing in South Limburg was sufficient. In addition, SWOL issued a memo on Limburg as ‘remote corner or central region’ (Limburg: ‘Uithoek of Kernland’), written by Hendrik Brugmans, rector of the Europa College in Bruges. He held a spirited plea in favour of Maastricht: on account of the inevitable European integration, South Limburg was increasingly going to be part of a ‘new pluri-national space’: Flemish, Walloon, Dutch and German. Maastricht, according to Brugmans, was the perfect place for a European university relying on multiple languages (not just English).

In early 1968 SWOL issued more memos. In a memo on the new medical faculty (Een nieuwe medische faculteit. Bijdrage tot de discussie), Tans denounced those who criticized the plan for a new medical faculty in Maastricht because the city was located in a corner of the country and had no technological infrastructure for modern medical education (as was in place in Eindhoven and Tilburg). Tans also wrote a memo on the need for a curriculum in international affairs at a university to be set up in Limburg (Nota opleiding internationale zaken aan de nieuw te stichten universiteit in Limburg). Its two co-authors were Jos Herold, head of a Psychological Institute in Maastricht, and Willy Toonen, staff member of the Economic Technological Institute Limburg (ETIL) and secretary of SWOL. The authors observed that Limburg, given its history, had long been a border region, but that today because of new European trends it was rather developing into ‘a country without borders, open to French and German cultural influences’. Apart from the medical faculty, Maastricht should also develop a social sciences curriculum geared to European issues, multi-language education in German and French, as well as focus on international exchange of students. The authors looked in particular to nearby Hasselt, Belgium, where the ground was prepared for new academic education as well.

SWOL did not limit its activities to publishing reports. It also targeted the (regional) press to present its plea for a medical faculty in Maastricht, as first step towards a new university. It was a problem, however, that the Van Walsum Committee’s assignment was merely to answer the question of whether a new medical faculty had to be set up, and if so, where. It could not address the issue of a new social science curriculum, let alone the establishment of new university! Regardless, in March 1968 Tans also pushed Van Walsum to weigh SWOL’s arguments beyond the strictly medical domain. Tans argued that Limburg’s claim was ‘justified’: it would be wrong to deny the new medical faculty to Limburg because the province could not boast having any institution of higher education yet.

A divided Van Walsum Committee

In the course of 1968, the Van Walsum Committee presented its recommendations to the minister of Education and Science, the KVP member Gerard Veringa. The committee argued that an eighth medical faculty in the Netherlands needed to be set up indeed. Opinions continued to differ on its location, however. Just four committee members favoured Maastricht, while the other ten members favoured linking the new medical faculty to an existing institution of higher education in Twente, Eindhoven or Tilburg. This made it possible for Veringa to do as he pleased in response to the advice. This in turn implied that SWOL had to step up its lobby.

Action! Action! The eighth medical faculty in Maastricht

In January 1969 a Citizens Committee (Burgercomité) was set up to promote establishment of a new university among the people of Limburg under the motto ‘Join us in building our Limburg University’. For example, signatures were gathered using cards depicting a symbolic brick and a space for a signature. SWOL disseminated these cards among all school children in Limburg. When on 25 March education and science minister Veringa paid on orientational visit to Maastricht, his deliberations with provincial officials at the Provinciehuis was followed by a ‘festive event’ in the Dominicans Church, which for this special event served as dining hall of the not yet existing ‘UiL’, the University in Limburg. He was shown a scale model of a building, which represented the new university. This scale model actually served as container of a quarter million ‘bricks’: the cards with 250,000 signatures. For the occasion of Veringa’s visit, the ‘fa. Cok en Co’, a group of artists from South Limburg, had a special pop-art style poster designed with ‘UiL’ on it. SWOL was of course responsible for making the scale model, but it had also initiated contact already with Limburg contractors to design plans for a university building.

The next challenge was how to raise the pressure on minister Veringa. At this stage, Tans would play a crucial role. He managed to convince the Labour MPs to be in favour of Maastricht in early July. The MPs of the Catholic KVP subsequently had to follow suit, for electoral or party-political reasons, and shortly thereafter they also announced their preference for Maastricht. In August 1969 Veringa made his decision public: the eighth medical faculty would be set up as the first step towards a new university in Maastricht. Although it was legally not possible to have an isolated medical faculty, the decisive argument for Veringa was the need for regional diffusion of higher education in the Netherlands. On 16 september, when Queen Juliana in her annual address announced the establishment of the eighth medical faculty in the context of a new university to be set up, flags were flying in Maastricht.

A new role for SWOL

SWOL entered a new phase. Its mission as a lobby organization to secure a university for Limburg was accomplished. But what was to be its future raison d’être? Initially SWOL concentrated on serving as a partner for the committee working on preparing the establishment of the new medical faculty in Maastricht (Commissie Voorbereiding Achtste Medische Faculteit). SWOL provided active and practical support to this project ‘within the context of the university to be founded’. For example, SWOL financially secured the position of the 50 people who in 1974 enrolled in the medical curriculum and who could not formally be called ‘students’ because the medical faculty formally started out as an experiment, without formal legal basis. After the official establishment of State University Limburg in 1976, SWOL decided to focus primarily on promoting its further development. In 1978, for instance, SWOL set up the Dr. Tans rotating chair in ‘educational methodology in health care’. Although SWOL has meanwhile changed its name into Limburg University Fund/SWOL (Universiteitsfonds Limburg/SWOL), it sustains its original objective by continuing to promote both the international orientation of Maastricht University and its interplay with the social and cultural life within the province of Limburg.


Charles Van Rooy, painted by Charles Eyck - with thanks to the Province of Limburg

Cover Report 1 SWOL

Maastricht 'central region'

Poster de UiL, 1969

Opening RL on 1/9/1976 with from left to right. Fons Baeten, Queen Juliana and Charles van Rooy - photographer Jos Nelissen

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