For the first time in the history of Maastricht University, there is an alternative opening of the academic year. On the same day as the formal ceremony, but without the trimmings of the Vrijthof theatre, award ceremonies, professors in robes, or a keynote speaker named Jennifer Barnes. Instead of that: six speakers, a stage, wooden benches, beer and Bionade in Landbouwbelang. What is wrong with the research and education system in the Netherlands? The discussion is not new, but according to the organisers, the Platform Hervorming Nederlandse Universiteiten (Dutch University Reform Platform), it must go on.
“Science needs competition, but competition has become so fierce that many fields of science now resemble war zones,” Frank Huisman quotes from a recent article in Nature. He is a professor of the History of Medicine in Utrecht, who also works in Maastricht, and he is one of the four leaders of the Science in Transition initiative. “We (SiT, ed.) are often reproached with being negative and too critical,” says Huisman. I spoke to a top manager at Maastricht University who said: ‘I love this university, I do not love SiT, you make me sad. ’To which I answered: ‘We also love this university, that is exactly the reason we do this.’ Criticism can also be positive,” Huisman feels. He sets the ball rolling for an audience of more than sixty people. In particular the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASOS) is well represented, both in the audience and on stage. The only non-UM speaker is Klaasjan Boon from the Dutch student union.
PhD students these days need to think critically, create original work, carry out research, publish, teach, and sometimes even co-ordinate a block. It’s a tall order; responsibilities are increasing, reckons Andreas Mitzschke, PhD student and council member for FASOS. “But we are inexperienced, we have to be trained to teach, which takes time. It is not possible for everything to be 100 per cent perfect, like the board may think.” Mitzschke has done a lot of investigating: “On average a researcher has temporary contracts for 13 years.” The work of a PhD student is uncertain, “precarious”, he feels, and not just during the PhD project, the years after that as well. Philosopher René Gabriëls thinks that there is “an elite” that determines what should happen. The university is run like a business, which brings him to a new slogan, thought up by one of his students: ‘Leading in earning’.
Students complain about more practical issues. “Communication is the greatest problem,” says Becky Turner, second-year student and chairperson of student association Orakel. “Why are we not informed when the results of exams are published later than agreed?” There is also dissatisfaction with the distribution of information. “Why are there so many platforms that provide information?” This is not just a problem in Turner’s faculty. A special student Taskforce was set up at the Faculty of Law last Spring, in order to uncover the obstacles. Students don’t know where to look anymore: on My UM, Eleum, or the faculty’s intranet?
“I understand your complaints,” replies a lecturer (Knowledge Engineering) in the audience, “but nobody has time to improve it, there is too much stress. Many on the work floor will share the general criticism on higher education, but there is a gigantic gap between us here this evening, and all the others at the UM. People are afraid to tackle things, there is frustration, gossiping and backstabbing, because that’s what people do when they are weak and afraid. Let us all together make a better system, make it a part of our ‘work place’.”