“I think it is awful that teaching at universities is so underrated"

Best practices Recognition and Rewards: having a look in Utrecht


A teaching career? Is that not for scientists who are not good at doing research, but who find teaching ‘fun’ and want to climb the ladder doing just that? It is a widespread prejudice. And it couldn’t be further from the truth, as appeared after an interview with professor Leoniek Wijngaards-de Meij from Utrecht. An interview with someone from Utrecht, why? Because there is a lot of praise from the Maastricht Executive Board for their Senior Fellow programme, a best practice within Recognition and Rewards.

Professor Leoniek Wijngaards-de Meij couldn’t believe her ears during a visit to the University College in London, a number of years ago. “We were speaking to our British colleagues about the role of teaching; one of them said that winning a teaching prize at his university was seen as the kiss of death. In other words: being chosen as the best lecturer, well, then you can forget the rest of your career. Because apparently you have given your superiors the impression that you have put all your energy into teaching, instead of spending it on research. My only thought was: ‘What are they up to?’”

Training youths

Wijngaards-de Meij paid a visit to the University College London at the time as an assistant professor. This was within the framework of the Educational Leadership Programme, a one-year course for a selected number of academics who “had or wanted a leading role in teaching,” says the website of the Centre for Academic Teaching at Utrecht University (UU).
The track was an important step in her career. “I think it is awful that teaching at universities is so underrated. We are a research and educational institute, we are training a large portion of the youths here. I am a researcher in heart and soul, but don’t lock me up to work on a VICI application. I could do it, but it is not what I’m passionate about. That passion is for teaching.”

By the way, anyone who thinks that Wijngaards-de Meij finds herself in a lecture hall on a daily basis, would be wrong. “I do hardly any teaching at the moment. You can play many different roles in teaching. From my administrative position, as vice dean of education at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences, I deal, among other things, with educational innovation, professionalisation of lecturers and quality control. In addition, I do research into education, I publish and supervise PhD students.”

Gift from the gods

She studied Clinical Psychology and also did a PhD in that field. At the same time, she gained experience as a lecturer for the Methods and Statistics department. “That is where we answer questions such as: How can we improve education? How can we better achieve learning objectives?” She set up projects, became co-ordinator of a number of subjects, of a minor, person responsible for curriculum revision, became director of education, the ball rolled further and further. “Throughout my career, I grew in teaching.”

To ultimately become professor at UU, a Senior Fellow programme was set up of about three to five years. Candidates must be selected – first by the faculty, then by a university committee. “There are a maximum of five positions available each year.” Candidates are freed from their department’s roster for two days a week; the Executive Board pays.

“In a way, it was a gift from the gods for me.” And no, not necessarily because of the outlook of a chair, she says. “That is of course great, because I have noticed that it is more difficult to ‘climb the ladder’ and have an influence without the title of ‘professor’. But what I feel is more important, is that with this, the UU shows what recognition and appreciation really means.” Still, it was mainly the meetings with like-minded people who gave her “a feeling of belonging, of support”. “The exchanging of ideas about educational innovation and change processes, across faculty borders, talking about what you have come up against.”

Invest money and time

The Educational Leadership Programme has existed for more than twenty years. In 2011, there was a follow-up course for very advanced academics (since 2017 thoroughly adapted to the Senior Fellow programme). “And no, I don’t want to sketch an ideal image, of course it could and must be even better, but I do feel that something is really changing within our university culture.”

Invest money and time: that is her most important advice to managers across the country. “In Utrecht, we have a University Stimulation Fund for Education. Every year, a million euro is budgeted for university projects as well as a million for faculty projects. So, don’t just say that you feel that teaching is super important, no, that won’t get you there.” What she means to say is: you will also have to loosen your purse strings.

Recognition and Rewards

What do Dutch universities want with this initiative? What happens at UM?

In November 2019, all Dutch universities and organisations such as the VSNU, KNAW and NWO emphasised the importance of a new way of recognising and appreciating scientists. The advisory memo is called: Room for everyone’s talent. Rianne Letschert, rector of Maastricht University, and the rector of Eindhoven University of Technology are the primary leaders.

Simply put, the new initiative is mostly a cultural change, a different mindset. The rat race in which scientists find themselves must be abolished. Why should everyone be the best in the field of research with all its quote scores and checklists? The one-size-fits-all model is a thing of the past. Personal growth is important. What gives someone pleasure, what is that person good at, what is their most important value for the academy? Teaching? Educational innovation? Is someone a crack in the field of ‘impactful’ research? Can they translate their research for the wider audience and society, politics or the economy? Or are they born leaders? Scientists should be given the freedom to develop themselves in one or more fields, and yes, that combination can change during their careers.

But this entails much more than a cultural change. Universities will have to introduce new rules for recruitment, selection, promotion and development. HR policies will have to be reformed.
Letschert and the deans of the faculties (Recognition and Rewards Committee) are leading the development of the programme within Maastricht University. Four working groups that looked into the themes teaching, research, impact and leadership (patient care is a fifth one for staff in the hospital) last year, have written down their ideas in ‘narratives’. There have been brainstorming sessions about these in all faculties since then.

The so-called implementation phase is to start this summer, says a recent visionary memo. Until December 2022, the existing policies will be adapted step by step – things like the tenure track, UFO profiles (University Job Classification (UFO) system) and HR regulations.

But just how easy or difficult will it be to introduce those changes? How do you bring about a different mindset in everyone’s head? Those in charge will have to develop a feel for individuals’ talents. The rector realises that investing in leadership development is therefore not a superfluous luxury. A taskforce is already dealing with it.

As far as the OBP (administrative and support staff) is concerned: there will also be new career policies for them too.

 “I think it is awful that teaching at universities is so underrated
Leoniek Wijngaards-de Meij
Recognition and Rewards
Author: Wendy Degens

Photo: archive Leoniek Wijngaards-de Meij/ Illustration: Simone Golob

Categories: Science, Background
Tags: recognition and rewards, recognitionrewarding,Universiteit Utrecht, senior fellow program,education

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