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?’”
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.