Photographer:Fotograaf: Kim Pieper
Over forty thousand people protested against budget cuts in education at the Malieveld in The Hague last Friday. Protest movement WOinActie did so on behalf of the universities. Their demands are about money, but it’s about more than just money. It’s also about work pressure and distrust. Those are the conclusions of the debate that took place last Thursday morning in the Turnzaal at FASoS.
Rector Rianne Letschert, who was part of a four-headed panel, pointed at the financial contribution from the government. For years and years, it has decreased and on top of that, part of the contribution is available only after researchers apply for it. This means they have to write proposals to compete for research grants. Letschert: “The system has become more and more competitive. This takes a lot of time and results in work pressure and overtime.”
‘Work pressure’ is by far the most important topic this morning. Various developments have resulted in more pressure on academic staff; the money ‘issue’ is merely one of them. An increasing feeling of distrust also figures prominently. Several people in the gymnasium complain about all kinds of new rules that are imposed from above. Think of the English proficiency tests people have to do. “I understand that,” says Letschert. But politicians impose a lot of bureaucracy on her as well. “It’s shocking how much distrust they have. It seems that The Hague wants to control everything. The person who knows how to solve this distrust by politicians may go on a three-year sabbatical,” Letschert says jokingly. The rector discusses this distrust regularly with the minister and with NVAO, the authority that assesses universities and their programmes, she says.
Another important issue is the emphasis on research. In the academic world, institutes are assessed on the basis of the quality of their research output. This leads to work pressure as well, as is recognised on a national level. Education needs to play a greater role here. Letschert: “All fourteen Dutch universities are willing to initiate a change, but it’s a great challenge because we also want to stay competitive with the rest of the world.”
Unreasonable rules and procedures by the faculty and university boards also cause considerable pressure. “Take for example the topic of assessment,” someone from the audience says. “It is very important to students, but officially we only have one hour per student per block for the assessment. One hour in total in which we have to grade a mid-term, a final test, fill in a feedback form, provide individual feedback and a resit. That’s simply not possible; I need three hours per student. Two extra hours for every student, times three courses per year. That’s a lot of extra hours. Or does anyone think it’s my individual problem?” Applause follows.
“It’s these kinds of things that make overtime frustrating,” someone else says. “When I was doing my PhD many years ago, I also worked weekends. Back then I didn’t mind, I enjoyed it because I was doing my research. Today I’m increasingly frustrated with the things I have to do. Our rector just said that researchers also need to learn how to say ‘no’ more often, admitting she’s very bad at it herself, but you can’t say no to bureaucracy.”
What isn’t helping is the fact that students are often not aware of the workload and all the extra effort put in by our professors, says panel member Ahmad Rifai, also a student member of the FASoS faculty council. “I heard unexpected things today such as all the hours professors spend on assessments. We need to engage students in this matter so that they know that more contact with a professor is not possible. If the quality of their research falls behind, the quality of our education gets worse as well. Students need to understand this.”