If Steef van de Velde had not become a business academic, he could perhaps have followed a very different career in his chosen sport of beach volleyball.
As it is, the 6ft 6in professor says his height has come in useful in academia as well as sport, joking that it was a big contributing factor in his appointment as dean of the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in the Netherlands: “I say the tallest professor always becomes dean.”
He took over almost three years ago as dean at RSM, a school which – unlike many European business schools – has built its reputation on being a rigorous research institution.
In the Financial Times MBA rankings, RSM ranks third in Europe, behind London Business School and Insead – trumping the likes of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, Iese in Spain and HEC Paris in France.
RSM has secured its strong research reputation because it has a large faculty – there are 250 academics working there – and enjoys strong financial support from the Dutch government.
But, as the amiable Prof van de Velde is quick to point out, the levels of state funding that public universities have traditionally enjoyed cannot continue.
“The money has to come from the market,” he says. “In a sense, we have to become more private.”
It is a funding crisis faced by almost all public universities in the world, with those in the Netherlands seeing a funding shortfall of 25 per cent over the past 10 years, he says.
As at many other business schools, Prof van de Velde’s strategy at RSM involves teaching more executive short courses. These command comparatively higher fees than degree programmes, and fundraising. The school also offers large numbers of masters degrees – of the 7,500 students, 1,500 are on masters programmes.
But the RSM dean also has to perfect a tricky balancing act: to hit the school’s financial targets, while ensuring the accessibility of RSM’s business degrees and meeting the political and social agenda of the Dutch government.
The strictures of the higher education system in the Netherlands, and in particular the insistence on open-access programmes, has posed a particular problem for the school’s master’s in finance programme, ranked 25th in the world by the FT this year.
Until recently, the open-access agenda meant that all students with an undergraduate degree from RSM had the right to study on its Masters in Finance degree if they chose.
The result of this was a mixed culture on the finance programme, says the dean. On the one hand, the school could select the very best applicants from overseas, but had to accept anybody with an undergraduate degree from RSM.
“So we had a mix of very talented and well-motivated students with others who weren’t in the same league.”
This year, the school will operate a competitive entry system for all 200 places on the 14-month programme. What is more, RSM will launch a second masters level finance degree in September 2015. This will be 18 months in length and even more selective in its intake, building on RSM’s undoubted strengths in teaching finance.
The new course will also be outside the public university system, ensuring that the fees will be competitive with those of RSM’s peer schools internationally.
The cuts in public funding come at a time when all top business schools are planning overseas expansion and increased levels of students services – all of which are expensive.
Prof Van de Velde believes that partnerships, not overseas campuses, are the way forward for RSM, and that the academic rigour of the school is critical in developing these partnerships. “We’re very academic and for a lot of [partner] schools this is attractive.”
RSM is already a member of two prestigious partnerships: the Cems network of largely European business schools that teach pre-experience masters programmes; and One MBA, an Executive MBA programme for working managers.
RSM’s partners in One MBA are the Kenan-Flagler school at the University of North Carolina in the US, Fundação Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Egade in Mexico and Xiamen University in China.
“All are very international schools,” he says. The dean may look a little closer to home for his next expansion plans, with Germany clearly a target market. “It is only a two-hour drive to the Ruhr.”
Steef van de Velde, dean of Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University, lists some of his favourite activities, places and things.
Holiday destination: Scheveningen, the Dutch seaside resort
Sport: Beach Volleyball
Restaurant: Zalmhuis in Rotterdam (it has a wonderful terrace)
Musician: DJ Tiesto
Novel: The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser
Mode of transport: Long distance flights
Animal: Rhodesian Ridgeback