A Brief History of ISS

From its inception in 1952 to the present day, ISS has been a unique and still growing Institution. As a research-led, teaching-based international graduate institute of policy-oriented social science, the collected talent and significant contributions its academics have made in the field of development can be at least partially attributed to the multicultural and close-knit community that has marked the Institution’s history. This article provides a brief overview of the rich background from which ISS has emerged into what it is today.

(This content is based on an article written by David Dunham, now retired, who taught Development Geography at ISS.)

1950 marked a new post-colonial world and an era of widespread European interest in reconstruction. With this goal in mind, the Dutch government set up a committee to explore the idea of a training institute for civil servants that would adopt a policy-oriented, multi-disciplinary approach to the needs of what were then described as developing countries. The committee was in favour, but the task it defined was ill-suited to the faculty structure of Dutch universities.

In January 1952, the Dutch universities formed the Netherlands Universities Foundation for International Cooperation (NUFFIC) , and one of its first tasks was to set up an international Institute of Social Studies – a special post-graduate English-language institution that would bring Dutch knowledge to bear in a distinctive brand of higher education concerned with problems of development.

The development of ISS has very much been a function of its environment – of changes on the world stage, in thinking about development and, within the Netherlands, in the need to position itself vis-à-vis ministries and the Dutch universities. Its history can be divided into three general phases, corresponding to the buildings in which it was housed. Buildings typify and shape the nature of an institution just as much as they are shaped by it, and ISS has had three different homes;

  • the Paleis Noordeinde
  • the former Hotel Wittebrug
  • the former Post and Telecom building in Kortenaerkade

In 1951, Queen Juliana generously offered part of the royal Paleis Noordeinde to house the Institute and NUFFIC. At the outset, ISS was very much a pioneering venture, finding its way in development studies and the pedagogic needs of its subject matter.

1970s - a time of change

At the time ISS was the vanguard of development studies in Europe and the earliest such institute. It certainly made its mark, but it was also very much an island – a very conventional, centrally-run, inward-looking community cut-off from society around it. In the early 1970s, the intellectual situation began to change, becoming more open. There was more internal delegation of power, and committee structures were first institutionalized.

With the tripling of oil prices in 1973 and the recession that followed, a more distinctive and critical slant was also to be discerned in its intellectual emphasis. Important work was underway on social indicators, on the New International Economic Order that was emerging, problems of grassroots survival, and the very poignant fact that development had winners and losers. There was also a marked increase in the size of the student body and in the proportion of foreign staff, widening the range of interests and of expertise. The ISS was changing. But, as it grew, it also began to burst at the seams – it desperately needed a new home.

Technical assistance

While originally conceived as a teaching Institute, already by 1954 it became apparent that it should also be research-based, making teaching and research two complementary outputs. The first batch of twenty students (most from South and East Asia) attended a two year MA programme, while shorter courses were soon introduced as Post-Graduate Diploma programmes.

The Palace building was ideally suited for the Institute and the ISS community in the early years. A residential college, students with common interests lived and worked together, with social get-togethers every evening and the Rector and his wife living on the premises. The ‘technical assistance’ of which ISS was part, was technocratic, bringing in experts from the Dutch Central Plan Bureau, the Statistical Office, Ministries and the Dutch universities (including Jan Tinbergen), interspersed with visits from ‘stars’ from international organizations and the international community. At the time it offered what for most was a unique experience, such as teaching planning, issues of public administration, and a Dutch experience, designed for successful mid-career civil servants who came to develop themselves. The project proved a renowned success, and it secured government funding.

In August 1977, the Institute moved to the former Hotel Wittebrug. A lighter and far more spacious building, it was more in keeping with its needs and with changes that were taking place in its professional development. A new Rector carried over earlier trends to the new location as ISS became less supply- and much more demand-oriented.

A critical perspective

Less concerned with training the administrator, ISS began to focus on ‘training the trainers’ such as NGOs, universities, trade unions, women and other organized groups, rather than just civil servants. The emphasis shifted to research, faculty became more involved in consultancy and advisory, and the Institute established new links with international organizations and relevant groups in both the north and south. In the mid-1970s, ISS took a leading role in the creation of the European Association of Development Institutes (EADI). More emphasis was placed on academic quality, the systematization of teaching and staff research. The Institute’s work gained widespread recognition abroad (and, to a lesser extent, in the Netherlands) and the Institute’s right to award PhDs was formally recognized in law.

The period was also marked by a rapid infusion of and produced new thinking on development, such as its path-breaking work on women and development (from 1976 onwards) and the research on money and finance. Its research plan in turn reflected a much more critical perspective, exploring agricultural development and rural poor; industrialization; social movements; international economic and political relations; basic needs; employment and technology; labour relations; women and development; rural-urban relations and metropolitan development; and the margins of state intervention. There was also solid work being done on agrarian politics and the whole question of land reform.

Close-knit community and professionalism

By this time, the student body was no longer residential and many were scattered in homes in the Dutch community. Yet the Institute was still in many ways very cohesive, in part because of the building. All paths in the Hotel Wittebrug led through the Common Room, down one central stairway or, on the way out in the evening, past the Butterfly Bar. It was cleverly designed in such a way that it was hard to avoid contact. Staff and students met on the stairs, at coffee breaks in the common room and, with no nearby shops, often ate together in the ISS canteen. This was an important ingredient of its success, both intellectually and socially.

The Institute had been able to change, to become much more professional and more outward-looking, while equally retaining the sense of community that bound staff and students together. However, it was also still growing and in 1990 it needed more space than was available, particularly for classrooms. ISS had to move on.

In 1993, the Institute moved to its present location, the former headquarters of the Netherlands Post and Telecommunications (the PTT). A larger, more commanding building near the city centre, it conveyed an aura of business-like professionalism that seemed to fit what was asked of the Institute, and of higher education more generally.

Marketing, networks and partnerships

The 1990s and 2000s were a period of internal reorganization, of tooling up to compete more effectively in an increasingly competitive environment in which Masters Programmes in development studies were mushrooming everywhere and the universities themselves were becoming more international, and in the Netherlands more English-speaking. Understanding demand, marketing and acquisition had become much more important, as had networks and partnerships in the south, as well as accreditation, quality control, costs, sticking to budget and increased efficiency.

The PTT building reflected these changes - it is more spacious and it offers better facilities, but there is no real no centre of gravity or focal point. With student residences next door and eating places nearby there is no necessity for everyone to mix in the ISS canteen. Staff and students can work from home or their office, and communicate by email, so is far less need to physically socialize.

Again, therefore, the building reflects and amplifies the nature of the Institute (and general work trends in society), and a recognized contemporary need is to find a way to reconstitute the old sense of community. A major reconstruction of the building in 2016, achieved this to some extent, with a new lobby where students, staff and guests can meet for a coffee, chat and impromptu meeting. The redesigned coffee lounge also offers a convivial space in which the ISS community can meet and interact.

Research-led, teaching-based

Throughout this period, the Institute developed closer collaboration with international agencies, ministries, NGOs and the corporate companies in both the north and south. It began to reassess what it offered that differentiated it as a research-led, teaching-based institute on problems of transition and change, both in the developing and developed world. Diploma teaching was revamped, and new specializations were introduced. A sharp decline in the number of Dutch Government Fellowships it could command in the mid-2000s did not give way, as some had feared, to a fall-off in student numbers. On the contrary, as a steady effort was put into the acquisition of alternative funding for students, there was an increase in the number of students who covered their own costs as well as those attending ISS on other fellowships. The Institute also played a prominent role in the establishment of CERES, the Dutch national research school relating to development studies. It became much more directly linked to the Dutch university system, and it became more recognized in Dutch society as a centre of critical expertise on development problems, policies and individual countries.

This direct link to the Dutch university system was formalized in 2009 when ISS joined Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR) as a University Institute.

This unique structure, in which ISS retains its mission, location and relative autonomy whilst benefiting from the resources available from an internationally renowned university, came about after a careful process of negotiations. As a University Institute, ISS is able to develop innovative research in cooperation with other EUR faculties and have greater access to Dutch and international research funding.

Students graduating from ISS receive diplomas and degrees which bear the names of both ISS and EUR. Although still located in The Hague, ISS staff and students have access to all EUR facilities and resources.

So ISS changes and is changed by the contemporary political, social and academic climate. Today ISS is a diverse, inclusive and dynamic global university institute with researchers and students from all over the world. And it will continue to take a leading role in creating a fairer society for all.

This is ISS

This is ISS

This is ISS

Lambert de Jong

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