What happens when you gather sixty of Europe’s most talented PhD students and ask them to rethink the role of universities worldwide and to write a manifesto on ‘the university of the future’? Well, you get a passionate plea to let go of traditional ideas and patterns and an invitation to be playful and imaginative.

In the year marking the twentieth anniversary of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), Utrecht University had the honour of hosting the annually rotating LERU doctoral Summer School in the first week of July 2022.

What the university should be…

And Utrecht would not be Utrecht if it didn’t choose a somewhat unconventional approach. The selected PhD’s – largely from LERU member universities, but complemented with a number of PhD students from Utrecht University partners – were not primarily invited to listen to lectures, but mainly to deliberate and brainstorm about what the university is and what it can or should be. Attendees were asked to critically reflect on and contemplate how universities could and should position themselves towards societal challenges and their relationship with society at large.

For my generation it is sometimes difficult to imagine a future at all

And that is exactly what they did. During an intense week with a programme consisting of a wide variety of work forms and guidance from a range of Utrecht University staff, moments of despair alternated with moments of hope. Why despair? As one PhD student put it: Because of all the current crises and uncertainty in the world, for my generation it is sometimes difficult to imagine a future at all. But this same generation shows a great imaginative power and a strong determination to change things for a better future. And that’s where hope comes to play.

Vegetable garden

Speaking of play… it was what the LERU doctoral Summer School participants tried to engage their interlocuters in the panel with during the presentation of their manifesto on the last day of their stay in Utrecht. By telling a fictional story about a post university world, by comparing the university to a vegetable garden with symbiotic relations and by asking the panel members to use their imagination and share their feelings. The approach yielded varying success.

The playful and inventive form of the presentation seemed slightly different from what most panel members had expected. As did the content. It took panel members Hilligje van ’t Land, Secretary General of the International Association of Universities (IAU), Kurt Deketelaere, Secretary-General of LERU, Henk Kummeling Rector Magnificus of Utrecht University and Catrin Finkenauer Program Director Dynamics of Youth at Utrecht University a moment to grasp what the PhD’s asked of them when invited to imagine and to share what they felt.

The world of the PhD students who had intensely worked, thought, philosophised, felt, played and imagined together for days, at first appeared miles away from that of the professors who in that same week had been respectively running an association, a league, a university and a strategic theme.

To some of the panel members the young researchers’ appeals, like wanting more attention for the wellbeing of students and staff and for a more bottom-up governance in the university of the future, seemed to feel like criticism. Like all the work they had already been doing for these purposes was being overlooked.

These PhD students are revolutionists

Maarten Hajer and Jeroen Oomen, respectively Director of and Postdoctoral Researcher at the Urban Futures Studio, host of the summer school, came to the rescue by acting as ‘interpreters’. Hajer: Nobody is questioning that there is already a lot of effort being put in by a lot of people and that the intentions are good and sincere. But the ideas presented here today come from a deep idealism. These PhD students are revolutionists. They don’t have all the answers, but they genuinely want to better the future. So let’s just listen to them. Jeroen Oomen concludes the week by asking the Summer School participants to keep thinking about the future of the university and eventually also to come up with concrete solutions. And finally he thanks all those present for the vulnerability they have shown.


Jeroen Frietman, Senior Advisor International Affairs and co-organiser of the LERU Summer School 2022, looks back at an impressive week. These students have unmistakable mixed feelings about their employer and feel a clear vocation to change the university from within. They perceive the university as an incredible place with plenty of room to explore their curiosity, but also as a place with powers that are a hindrance for the progress they envision.

The results of the LERU doctoral Summer School 2022 will be followed-up at the IAU General Conference in Dublin in October and is also on the agenda of the next LERU’s Rectors’ Assembly.