'Three universities for the price of one'

Educational alliances are a growing phenomenon. This is no wonder: by allowing students to take courses back and forth, institutions can greatly enrich their educational offerings in one fell swoop. But how do you get such an alliance to work? We take a look behind the scenes at Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities.

Vrouw van achter gefotografeerd zitten op een bank met een mobiele telefoon in haar hand

It must be a bizarre experience for students born in the twenty-first century. Want to take a subject at another university? Then you have to print out a form and submit it to an examination board. After approval, the form has to go to a committee at the other institution. In an envelope! Where do you buy that?

This form of data exchange is not only archaic but also opaque. Regularly, students appear at the front desk, disturbed because everything took much longer than they expected.


This state of affairs is very common in education 'outside the door'. "You really have to be a go-getter," says Marja Verstelle. As quartermaster at the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Universities (LDE) strategic education alliance, she is familiar with the complications of educational exchange. The three institutions have been offering the possibility of taking minors back and forth since 2015. But that is easier said than done.

Marja Verstelle, quartermarster LDE education alliance

Marja Verstelle, quartermarster LDE education alliance

"The first hurdle for students," she continues, "is to track down interesting minors at the other institutions' websites. And the second to find out the procedure by which you can register. That does go digital at LDE, fortunately, but the whole process could be much more convenient. It is a miracle that still over 1,300 LDE students a year take a minor at a partner institution."

Administrative burden

It marks the need among students. And the exchange is also important for the cooperating universities. "We offer three universities for the price of one," says Verstelle.

"We would therefore like to double the number of students taking a minor at one of the partners. But in the current way, this is impossible. This is mainly because of the administration at the back end."

In fact, the inconvenience for the students is also experienced by the staff: "It is becoming increasingly difficult for the people behind the scenes who have to manually create all the guest accounts, put registrations into systems and you name it. Everything based on exchanged Excel sheets and PDFs. It's just not doable anymore in terms of volume."

"We would like to double the number of LDE students taking a minor at one of the partner universities. But in the current way, this is impossible."
Student achter laptop in bibliotheek vanaf verhoging met koptelefoon


LDE students and staff have one advantage: they are not dependent on exam boards that have to approve external minors. Verstelle explains: "Within LDE, we made the deal that all minors are approved in terms of level and quality in advance by the examination committees. That also saves those committees an enormous amount of work. We have agreed: what is good for a Leiden student is also good for a Delft or Rotterdam student."

Furthermore, we reserve 33% of the places in a minor for each other's students. While it is enormously labour-intensive to arrange that, it is a great advantage for students."

One system?

But meanwhile, the three universities still have three minor catalogues. And efficient and secure data exchange is lacking. What to do?

"When we started LDE," says Verstelle, "we looked at a joint system. At the time, that actually seemed to be the only solution for efficiently organising student exchange and the increasing number of joint minors and courses. But the conclusion was: it costs an awful lot of money and takes ten years to set up. And are you going to set up a new system for every new alliance you join?"

Studenten kunnen online inschrijven voor minoren bij partneruniversiteiten

Students can register online for minor courses at partner universities

One website

This spring, the hassle will come to an end. Then LDE will follow in the footsteps of another alliance: EWUU, the alliance of the universities of Utrecht, Eindhoven and Wageningen.

There, students can now find available courses from the three institutions on one website: eduXchange.nl. All described in the same format and found with a good search function. And you can immediately register online there in a way that leaves no room for confusion. Both pilots were brought about from the Versnellingsplan.

This is made possible by a new service, SURFeduhub, Verstelle explains: "That retrieves data on courses from the study guides of member institutions and presents them in a uniform way."


"That data exchange is inherently secure," says Verstelle. "SURFeduhub only transmits the data, on the fly, and therefore does not store them."

Moreover, at eduXchange, the linking service is combined with eduID. This is a digital identity linked to an individual and thus not to an institution. It is based on an open standard. It is therefore ideal for lifelong learning, but also for alliances between institutions.

Privacy by design is another advantage of eduID. Verstelle: "Via eduID, students can, for instance, indicate which data they want to share with which institution. I expect that our privacy and security officers will be as happy with it as those at EWUU."

"Federated is the way to go for secure data exchange."

Federated solution

SURFeduhub is thus a federated solution to a major practical problem of collaborating educational institutions. "Federative is the way to go," says Verstelle.

Technically, there is one condition for SURFeduhub: each SIS must be provided with a link according to the OOAPI standard. The good news is that every higher education institution will have such a link from 2023. Because then it will be required for the automatic exchange of education data to the RIO (Registration of Institutions and Programmes). There are some differences in the data shared, but the standard is the same.

More alliances

So soon the linking service will be available everywhere. That bodes well for cooperation between educational institutions, Verstelle believes. "The LDE alliance will join the new version of eduXchange that is now being built in March. But Delft, for example, has also been cooperating in a project with Wageningen University for years. That extra piece of education can easily be included in the system in the future."

Verstelle therefore expects alliances to continue to expand in number. "Physical distance is no longer such an issue, because since corona we can all get by with online and hybrid education. Leiden, Delft and Wageningen already participated in the international Virtual Exchange project before that. Everything we encountered administratively then, we can now solve with the federated approach."

Next year, LDE will also start offering joint minors via eduXchange. In time, Verstelle sees choice packages and flexible learning routes also being arranged this way. "The Digital Transformation Impulse for Education can give that whole process a big boost."

Alliances across borders

The European Commission promotes 'European universities', basically international alliances for higher education. One example is EuroteQ, of which TU/e is a member. A pilot for secure data exchange is now starting there, based on the experiences with eduXchange. There is also interest in this from the CHARMEU and ENLIGHT alliances.

Text: Aad van de Wijngaart

'Three universities for the price of one' is an article from SURF Magazine. Monthly the newest articles in your inbox? Then subscribe to the SURF Magazine newsletter (in Dutch).


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