Work pressure for UCM lecturers sky high
MAASTRICHT. Work pressure has been a theme at Maastricht University for years. But since the start of COVID-19, it has increased exponentially across the University, both for academic and for support staff. Young lecturers at University College Maastricht seem to be having an extra hard time. There are times when they have up to four tutorial groups in a row on campus and all with the same content. Boring and exhausting, they say. At the weekends, they hold voluntary Zoom sessions for students. The dean is struggling to find a balance between the well-being of his students and lecturers. But for him the interest of the first group weighs heavier.
If it had been up to dean Jos Welie, who has been ruling the roost at UCM since 1 May, they would have put all education online this academic year. “I’ve had the experience of working with online education at Creighton University in Omaha, in the United States, for ten years. And that can work really well. In spring, we had to radically change everything in one week. There was no time to think about anything. But during the summer, I thought: let us use that last bit of energy that we have left and invest it in online education, by making it better. Because good online education is not the same as good education online.”
But Welie was called to order by the Maastricht Executive Board, he says. “We were not permitted to put everything online and had to offer at least some of the education on campus. It is still a complete mystery to me why a faculty like FASoS [Arts and Social Sciences, ed.] is allowed to have practically all its tutorial group meetings online, and we are not.”
The UCM building on the Zwingelput has its limitations. Most of the rooms cater for up to six students. Welie felt that hybrid education – half of the students on campus, the other half online – wasn’t an option. “Then you are diluting the advantages of both the one or the other,” he says. The pilots with hybrid sessions that the UM carried out last summer, confirmed Welie’s estimations. So he chose to split the groups in half. Six students in a tutorial group at one particular time, followed by the same tutorial for the other half.
It is especially UCM’s younger employees (most of them have an 80 or 100 per cent teaching job), but also those lecturers who have been hired from other faculties, who have suffered the consequences of this choice.
“The tutorial groups have been shortened, which means that I am not spending a total of more hours than before, but there are compulsory breaks of an hour. So now, if I have four groups in a day, I am in the building from half past eight in the morning until six in the evening,” said a young lecturer with whom Observant spoke – who, just like the other interviewed lecturers, wants to remain anonymous. “Those breaks are lost time.” That hour is unfortunately necessary, Welie explains. Not just to reduce traffic in the corridors, but mostly because the schedule demands it in the light of the open curriculum at UCM.
“An hour is too short to go home,” the lecturer says. “But you also can’t hang about in the building. The common room is closed. If the weather is good, I will go for a walk in the park. The other day, I sat in the car for an hour.”
Another disadvantage that the lecturers mention: repetition of the content. “If you have four groups in one day and you have the same discussion four times, you feel more like a machine than a lecturer.”
A third disadvantage is the shortened lessons. Before COVID-19, a student had four hours of tutorial group meetings a week for each subject, against only 2.5 hours now. “Normally, I get great satisfaction from a lesson. Now I feel like I am failing each time,” says a person in their twenties who teaches at UCM. There is always something that I didn’t manage to fit in. And whose responsibility is it that there is a discussion, that Problem-Based Learning works? The students. The tutor only has a facilitating role. But how can you appeal to their sense of responsibility when there is no room to take responsibility?”
He concludes that lecturers who choose to stick rigidly to PBL and themselves don’t get involved in the discussion, are behind the times. As far as he is concerned, there is way too much emphasis on the tutorials. “Students can’t allow themselves to be sick, so with the little energy that they have, they still partake in an online session. Of course that is not the way to recover. Besides, what can you remember after an hour, if you are not feeling well?”
Another problem is the overfull mailbox. Students have fewer contact hours and it is only logical that they are often left with questions, the lecturers notice. So they plan in extra Zoom sessions themselves. In their own time. “It is important for the students, and I see that it is not easy for them,” one lecturer says.
But the questions in the mailbox by no means always relate to the content. Often it is about practical matters, about COVID-19 measures for example, which actually are for the Education Office or management. And sure, the majority of students are friendly, this lecturer says, but there is also a small group that feels privileged and regards the tutor as a puppet on a string and wants things done double-quick.
“Students prefer to e-mail a lecturer whom they already know,” says Welie. And without making light of the above, I would also like to stick up for the other employees, staff members from the Education Office. “They also receive boatloads of e-mails and do all they can – despite restrictions due to COVID-19 – to give students advice.”
The fact that lecturers offer up a large part of their free time, is not the intention, says dean Welie. “Before COVID-19, the College used to often have social gatherings or lectures at the faculty, every now and again there would be a question for the lecturer regarding the content. But that didn’t feel like work. Switching on your computer in the evening for a Zoom session: that is work. We harp on at the lecturers that they have to protect themselves. And students must not have the idea that a lecturer is available 24/7.”
It may be an idea that the faculty points this out to students, one of the lecturers suggested. “That they take into consideration the pressure under which we are working.”
Not all online
Do the lecturers feel that the management team hears what they are saying? “Certainly”, they say. “Every other week there is a ‘listening meeting’ with all junior lecturers, approximately thirteen in total. Moreover, the work pressure has been alleviated somewhat compared to the first period. Management intervened when crying lecturers told them that they couldn’t carry on as things were.” But some problems are persistent. And there is no money to employ more tutors, says Welie.
What about going completely online after Christmas? The dean feels that this is not an option at the moment. “Lecturers have just taught two periods in this way and then I would have to ask them to change everything around again.” Besides, the students don’t see that as an option, as became clear from a survey that he held recently. About 580 students responded. “A large number emphatically asked – in the open question at the end of the questionnaire – to please not switch to all online. Forty per cent of the students even said that they would leave Maastricht if we went completely online. A little less, 36 per cent, said they would stay. A small minority of almost 8 per cent (that still translates to approximately sixty students), said that they would temporarily stop studying if everything was online.”
The rumblings about work pressure – and not just within UCM – have meanwhile also reached the University Council. In a written announcement, the ‘presidium’ (the executive committee of the University Council) made its concerns known to the Executive Board last Wednesday during a plenary meeting.