Lessons from Dutch academic activism (part 1)

by Ingrid Robeyns on March 15, 2019

I have been a very poor blogger here at CT recently. That’s because I took up a second job – namely becoming an activist for the reform of the funding of Dutch academia. I have been wanting to try to write on this here repeatedly, but one thing that stopped me was that I didn’t know where to start. So rather than overstreching myself (what I have already been doing in real life…), I thought I can write a series of posts (irregularly, and I may not write more than two or three) on what general lessons one can learn from being an academic who engages in activism to reform academia.

So off we go, with lesson 1.

In the Dutch case, one of the most striking lessons I learnt starts from the observation that the system of funding of research and university teaching is completely non-transparant and very hard to get accessible information about. Dutch universities are all public universities, which means that they are funded primarily by the government, who sets the constraints, conditions and ‘targets’ that apply to the workings of the universities. But the universities themselves are the legal employers, responsible for e.g. workload, contracts, etc. If one wants to start understanding why there is such pressure on the system, both parties will regularly point to the other party if one has a question or a complaint. Unfortunately, there is not one ‘wikipedia-style’ place, or one government website, that one can consult and then one understands how the funding works, who gets what for what reasons, what the changes over the years have been, and so forth.

I started to get involved in HE politics around 2010, and for quite a while thought I knew a lot, until I was invited to give a television interview at the prime political talkshow in March 2018 and effectively took up a leadership position in academic activism in the next Summer. Preparing for radio and television interviews made me realize there was so much I didn’t know. But almost never did I get my information from colleagues, but rather from top-level university administrators and managers, leaders from the labour unions, or reports from the Rathenau Institute, an independent research institute that produces studies on science, technology and the production of knowledge.

I will not explain here what the parameters and details of the funding system are; I had hoped to write up a post explaining this for the blog run by the Dutch political scientists, but it would take me a few days and at least 10.000 words, and really, I do not have that time (right now).

But the lesson learnt is that the vast majority of academics, who see on a daily basis that there are not enough colleagues to do all the work, do not understand the ultimate reasons for the pressures (or do not understand enough of it). We are working in a neoliberal system that has quite strong incentives stearing towards maximising output. In that system, there is such a deep imbalance between what the government is prepared to pay for our work and what needs to be done, that systematic and large amounts of overwork are inevitable. The staff notes the pressures, but speculates about the causes. The vast majority of them do not have the time or inclination to find out, which is not strange since the information is so hard to get (and, admittedly, also often quite boring). So they come up with all sorts of hypotheses of why we are in the untenable situation that we are in, based on analyses that are not informed by solid knowledge of the system, including some that include a form of self-blame .

The neoliberal politicans sit back and relax with a big smile on their face, when they see how hard it is for academics to mobilise large numbers of colleagues. The current academic protests, united under the academic platform WOinActie [literally: Universities/University education in action], has been very successful given how bad the conditions are under which we have to mobilise colleagues. But still I have been surprised at how difficult it is to close the ranks, get together, get people out of their office and onto the squares, and be united on this cause.

One straightforward explanation is that this is a classical case of a collective action problem: if WOinActie succeeds in pressuring the government to improve the funding for universities (that is, raise the total amount of funding as well as ameliorate the structures/incentives in the funding system), then all academics working in the Netherlands will benefit—but only those who sacrificed their time and energy will pay a cost. I have no doubt that this is in large part what is going on here. But additionally, since most do not understand what the details of the problem are, and do not realise that those who should address these issues (our leadership) have failed to negotiate these improvements in a diplomatic manner for at least two decades, and hence that a more direct form of activism and pressure-making is needed (since other strategies failed), it is seductive to embrace the alternative hypotheses for why we are so overworked/underfunded, or simply shrug one’s shoulders, since one believes nothing can be done about the situation.

Lesson one: as activists, we have to make sure we gather all the data and make a sufficiently detailed analysis, and make that analysis available in a public and easily accessible manner to all those whom we would like to mobilise for our activism. Not only do we need this information and the analyses to make sure we are right in our complaints and claims (obviously!) but also because otherwise the colleagues whom we would like to convince to join the activism will be able to tell themselves that perhaps, after all, we have only ourselves to blame, or the ultimate cause of our troubles has to be found elsewhere. Mobilising academics requires making and sharing the analysis of the causes of the problems.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1

B 03.15.19 at 10:17 pm

Ergo, that blog post that explains how the system works, and what the problems are is required. Otherwise, it is still all the same, no?

2

Ingrid Robeyns 03.15.19 at 10:28 pm

B – yes, that’s totally true. The first-order problems are by now widely shared and well-known, namely excessive work loads and no money to hire more lecturers, as well as more adjunct-type staff. The problem is to go from there to the underlying causal analysis. We have bits and pieces of the analysis published in newspaper pieces etc. – but these are scattered and we notice not everyone knows to find those.
There should be one longread, that has all the information, clearly explained, backed-up with links to the relevant sources. If someone magics me a week, I will write it. The superirony is that if one engages in activism because the funding is such that workpressures have become unbearable… well, then one doesn’t have time to write such a longread…

3

B2 03.16.19 at 12:06 am

…you spent just over a thousand words, at multiple points lamenting you have no time, and yet I learned effectively nothing. As supportive as I want to be in these sorts of situations, this post is, frankly, wholly uninformative. “There is a problem,” it is because of “neoliberalism,” compounded by the combination of”information is hard to get” and “people are hard to organize.”

4

Hey Skipper 03.16.19 at 3:57 am

We are working in a neoliberal system that has quite strong incentives steering towards maximising output. In that system, there is such a deep imbalance between what the government is prepared to pay for our work and what needs to be done, that systematic and large amounts of overwork are inevitable.

How about looking at it this way: the government, acting as the representative for taxpayers, to whom the taking of their resources requires justification, desires value for money.

Taxpayer value for taxpayer money spent.

5

Ingrid Robeyns 03.16.19 at 7:11 am

Sorry for wasting your time, B2.

Hey Skipper – yes, that’s true, but that shouldn’t entail underpaying the system so much that the work required can only be done by systematic overwork. And the question remains what the taxpayers want (and as a matter of discussion: shoudl want) from the universities.

6

Ingrid Robeyns 03.16.19 at 7:26 am

one thing that surprises me, was how hard the collective action problem is. One would think that as a professional group, academics would understand the idea of a collective actino problem, and that would make it easier for them to overcome the collective action problem. But that hasn’t been the case. My speculation/hypothesis is that the lack of an accessible, detailed analysis is a reason for why the collective action problem could not be overcome easily.

btw, I’d be interested to learn from the experiences of others who’ve been in similar situations. IN our discussions, there were refernces to the British strikes (about which Miriam wrote ‘a beginner’s guide’ a while back: http://crookedtimber.org/2018/03/05/44049/ ) . My hunch is that the cases are hard to compare because in the British case it was very clearly and directly evident what was at stake for each individual who was invited to join the strike. If the ‘target’ of the protest is a general underfunding of a system, which has gone on very slowely for 20 years (and hence many have not noticed it) and a set of incentives in the system that lead to increased pressure on workers, then the gains that one is fighting for are much less directly related to each individual potential protester.

7

Dipper 03.16.19 at 8:45 am

Well what a surprise. A large monopolistic state-run organisation turns out to be a rubbish employer. Like the NHS in the UK.

Still, its an ill wind etc. Banking in the UK benefits greatly from such employers. I had a steady stream of applicants from Universities all over Europe and beyond (although EU rules meant a few extra hurdles for non EU employees). We offered interesting work all day long, no committees, no budget proposals or reviews, and an opportunity to earn decent money.

Not just banks; investment funds, tech giants, pharmaceutical companies etc

Competitive privately owned organisations, judged by results, turn out to be good for workers. State owned monopolies, not so good.

8

Gareth 03.16.19 at 9:12 am

” One would think that as a professional group, academics would understand the idea of a collective actino problem, and that would make it easier for them to overcome the collective action problem. “

Just understanding the idea of a collective action problem almost never makes it easier to overcome. You may as well expect a professional nutritionist not to get hungry.

9

SusanC 03.16.19 at 10:45 am

I’m based in the UK. Prior to Brexit, a large portion of our academic research was funded via the European Commission, so we share much of the system in common with the Netherlands.

There may be major differences between hw things wotk in different subject areas and even particular institutions, but it toughly looks like this:

a) The funded body puts out a call for proposals in a particular area
b) A university researcher in a management level position (in DARPA paralance, you’ld say the “principal investigator” puts in a bid for some government money, with the draft contract specifiying exactly what is to be produced, when it will be done by and how much it will cost. Note: over-optimism on the part of the principal investigator at this point will result in the people rthey manage being overworked, if the time allowed is not adequate to what is to be produced. Note 2: Although the university administartions view may be that staff are hired to work on the project after the funding body agrees to it, the PI ought to have in mind which existing staff will be working on the project and be consulting with them about whether the schedule is at all realistic.
c) The funding bodu approves the project (or not).
d) The university then advertises for staff to work on the project. Applications are open to anyone, though , as mentioned above, the PI really ought to have a person in mind for the role and have talked to them about whether it is possible to complete the work in the time allocated prior to this point. If you would like to apply for one of these jobs, you probably should have been talking to the PI in step (b) before the official advertisement for the post went out. (It is sometimes know for a qualified complete outsider to apply for the post at this point, what usually happens is that the university hires both candidates, because we’re always short of staff. So it is worth a go applying for these things even if you missed out on step (b).
e) Research gets done. Lots of things can go wrong at this point. Things can take longer than anticipated, the experiment can yield unexpected results, etc.
f) Reports on what was done are written and submitted to the funding body. This completes the university’s formal contractual obligations to the funding body.
g) Results also submitted as papers to scientific journals. Lots of risk at this stage. Journals can reject your submission for arbitrary stupid reasons. If the project is in collaboration with a commercial sponsor, they may want to supress certain research results they find embarrassing (I.e. forbid submission to a journal) Government funding bodies may also want to supress experimental results they don’t like. This is a bit of a problem if your continued employment depends on getting the paper into a suitable journal. (Yes, there is a major institutional incentive to commit scientific fraud at this point).
h) If you’re a PhD student who is also funded off a research grant, a doctoral dissertation on what you did would be good. Pass/fail of your PhD is a separate question from getting the report to the funding body or getting a paper into a journal.
i) For career-track research staff, continued employment depends on how reputable a journal you got your results published in. The university is also affect via league tables such as the Research Assement Exercize, etc.

To add to the complication, there is also teaching. At some institutions, is is mandatory that you be teaching staff to act as a principal investigator. Also, teaching staff are promoted based on their research output. But: the university has a certain amount (call it x) of teaching that needs doing, and a certain amount (call it y) of research that it is contracted to do. x and y can clearly be significantly different, depending on how much research the government funds etc. But if they are not approximately matched, there is a major institutional problem.

10

Sean 03.16.19 at 11:22 am

So I felt a little bit bad crossing the (imaginary) picket line yesterday and going to work as normal – I work for a Dutch HBO (University of Applied Sciences) – but I went into work, and thus did not take part in the collective action, because none of the material I could find about the reasons for the strike spoke to any reality that I experience in the HBO sector.

When I went looking, all I could find was the nativists from BON complaining about too much English-language education – and as someone working in a fast-growing international degree programme, the BON can go fuck themselves; and the use of schaal 10 for staff who are, in practice, operating at a far higher level. Schaal 10 is an issue, for sure, but not – in my experience – misused; and there is a clear path (again, in my experience) from there to permanent contracts and to higher salary scales within the HBO sector.

I get that primary and secondary education in the Netherlands are under stupid pressure (largely from demographic changes); I get as well that the vocational sector (MBO) is feeling that now. I read – but have no direct experience – that the research University sector is under pressure of temporary contracts and understaffing; but having worked for 8 years in the UK research University sector, the complaints here seem trivial in comparison. The HBO sector (again: my experience only) is at its best since I started working in it, just over 8 years ago. Sure, there is too much influence by second rate ‘professorships’ (lectoraten) on our programme, and the coming demographic cliff means that facility construction is limited – but funding (in my experience) is good, work pressure is related to our desire to teach better, and management is, unusually, neither incompetent nor malicious.

I would like the prestatieafspraken to be publicly available: that alone would make it clear to all interested parties where the pressure comes from; and I would like to be left alone by the nativists, to teach my international students in the language they share – but neither of those issues were on the strike agenda. So I didn’t join the picket line. That might be short-sighted of me – my institution is predicting a 25% decline in student population *in two years time* due to the demographic cliff, and that will not be a pleasant adjustment process – but its hard to get behind collective action that does not at all reflect my daily working experience.

11

Ingrid Robeyns 03.16.19 at 11:45 am

Sean, the problem with Dutch universities can be summarised in one statistic: since 2000, student numbers have gone up with 68%, governmental funding for the universities per student has gone done with 25%. If one digs deeper, then one finds that the reason is that the government unilaterally decided to freeze (around 2004, I believe) the funding for research, and make it not depend on the number of students. So we have money to hire teachers, but there is no money to let them do reserach, whereas they are expected (and want) to do research; and indeed, the government and others keep repeating that the university education requires that this educatino goes hand in hand with research.
In short, this is a very specific problem for universities, not for colleges (HBO’s).

Just in case anyone doubts the claims about work pressure, here is the latest survey from the labour unions (press release with link to the report at hte bottom – all in Dutch): https://www.fnv.nl/nieuwsbericht/sectornieuws/fnv-overheid/2019/03/werkdruk-op-universiteiten-nog-verder-opgelopen

12

Lee A. Arnold 03.16.19 at 11:50 am

Dipper #7: “Competitive privately owned organisations, judged by results, turn out to be good for workers. State owned monopolies, not so good.”

Since there are thousands of counterexamples to each of these statements, I think what we have here is the evidence of an emotional agenda grabbing for simplistic theory as if it were fact. In reality the whole world is heading into monopolies and monopsonies of various private and public kinds, with management issues decided by prices or votes — why? because overall, they save work effort. That’s not to say there aren’t a lot of problems and special circumstances. The price system is supposed to be automatic but really it is decided by consumer knowledge, and that is every bit as deficient as voter knowledge. And policies are very different, for example, education and healthcare have so many different supply-and-demand characteristics that they must be treated separately. Bankers in particular may be least able to judge the value of health & education’s goods and services, because it isn’t about the money.

13

Martin Lenz 03.16.19 at 2:03 pm

So why is it so difficult to activate people or have political discussions among staff members more generally? – Here is one observation: My hunch is that the lack might be partly due to changed organisational structures. When I came to the Netherlands in 2012, I took part in what was to be the last general staff meeting. After that, all meetings began to be split in ‘functional’ meetings: so we have meetings devoted to specific purposes such as teaching etc. The upside is that these events are rather focussed, you don’t waste time and people speak to the point. The downside is that there are no times for general political remarks. You’d seem out of place and stealing everyone’s time if you were to bring up general political matters. – Not sure whether this functionalisation is intentionally directed against politics, but it’s one of the effects.

14

Stephen 03.16.19 at 5:39 pm

Ingrid@11 “the problem with Dutch universities can be summarised in one statistic: since 2000, student numbers have gone up with 68%, governmental funding for the universities per student has gone done with 25%. If one digs deeper, then one finds that the reason is that the government unilaterally decided to freeze (around 2004, I believe) the funding for research, and make it not depend on the number of students.”

I know little about Dutch universities, but my vague memory from some time ago is that they can control the number of students they admit. If that is so – and I would not be at all sure that it is – then might not the difficulties of university staff, faced with the number of students increasing faster than university income, have something to do with incompetent university administration?

If it is not so, then who if anybody does or should control the number of admissions?

And as for central research funding depending on the number of students admitted: in the UK, that would be a disaster, since there is no connection at all between student numbers in a university and the volume or quality of research in that university. Why might that be different in the Netherlands?

15

eg 03.16.19 at 7:07 pm

@Dipper #7

“Competitive privately owned organisations, judged by results, turn out to be good for workers. State owned monopolies, not so good.”

Carillion and Interserve would like a word …

16

Z 03.16.19 at 10:48 pm

@Ingrid the problem with Dutch universities can be summarised in one statistic: since 2000, student numbers have gone up with 68%, governmental funding for the universities per student has gone done with 25%. If one digs deeper, then one finds that the reason is that the government unilaterally decided to freeze (around 2004, I believe) the funding for research

Thanks for this post, your comments and your activism. Just to point out that the exact same situation prevails in France: since 2008, there are 350,000 more students enrolled in Universities, and 25,000 people less working in them. In our case, research funding as well as funds for teaching and salaries have been frozen around 2008/2009 (with a temporary exception in 2016) and have now been not only frozen but actively decreased in constant euros. The story you tell about the increased workload is very familiar as well.

For a range of reason the most salient surely being that children of the elites usually do not go to universities in France, activism has failed (and keeps failing) quite completely. But let not that deter you!

17

SusanC 03.17.19 at 4:44 pm

I’m curious about “make [the funding for research] not depend on the number of students”.

In the UK, at least, teaching staff and research are funded by completely different routes. So in principle the ratio between the two can vary, and indeed UK universities vary as to how research-focussed they are.

But there’s all sorts of connections between the two such that a change in the ratio would cause serious problems.

For example, some departments have a policy that research projects can only be managed by someone who is on a teaching contract. (Teaching staff on permanent contracts, research staff on rolling temporary contracts that expire at the end of each research project). This is highly controversial, and there are a number of reasons to object to it. (And its specific to certain institutions, and not a general rule). Given that managing a research project actually involves some effort on the part of the manger if its going to be done competently, this in effect means that the number of research contracts the institution can bid on is limited by how much teaching it is being paid to do. I think there are subtle constraints in the reverse direction too, such that the number of active research contracts places an upper limit on how much teaching can be done.

18

J-D 03.17.19 at 11:40 pm

I have been a very poor blogger here at CT recently.

Posts to this blog are not the discharge of an obligation but acts of grace, and anybody who doesn’t accept them as such should be disregarded. So please don’t apologise; there’s nothing to apologise for. When you post it’s appreciated and when you don’t it’s understood, or that’s how it should be.

On the subject of the post, in my own country I have been aware (for years) of two kinds of complaints about government funding for universities. One kind of complaint is that the aggregate level of funding is inadequate and that this has negative effects across the board. Primarily, when aggregate funding is inadequate, the ratio of staff to students is too low, which means that staff cannot provide students with adequate support and the quality of teaching suffers. An inadequate level of aggregate funding can also mean inadequacies in laboratory space, equipment, and supplies, computing facilities, books, and other library resources, which can impair both teaching and research, and the excessive demands on staff when the ratio of staff to students is too low also reduce the time and effort staff have available to devote to research, which is therefore also negatively affected.

All of that, it seems to me, can be easily understood without having to know specific details of the funding allocation mechanism.

There are also complaints about more specific problems caused by specific funding allocation mechanisms. It’s only those which require an understanding of how funding is allocated for the problems to be properly understood. If your aggregate level of funding is inadequate, it seems to me, people should be able to understand the problem without knowing the details of how funding works. Everybody’s overworked? Is that because you’ve got not enough staff for the number of students? Doesn’t hiring more staff require more money?

19

Joseph O'Mahoney 03.18.19 at 10:09 am

While this is true in some ways (e.g. funding body research grants), this is not true in exactly the way that Ingrid is reporting. Staff have x number of hours in a day/week/year that are working hours. If your contract is for teaching and research, then some of that time is allocated to teaching and some of that time is allocated for research and you are evaluated (probation/promotion etc) on the basis of doing both of those things. The more students you have, the more staff you have, and hence the more research (total) gets done. However, if you hire staff on a teaching intensive contract, then they are allocated far more time to teaching than to research and are only minimally evaluated on research output. If, as Ingrid notes (and I don’t read Dutch), in NL staff are given more teaching then the proportion of paid time spent on research will decrease with a corresponding decrease in the amount/quality of that research. Also, if those staff are still being evaluated on research, then either they have to overwork or they will do worse on those evaluations and get fired or not get promoted. In addition, as I know myself, the more you have standards that you are trying to meet but worry about failing to meet, the more stress you have.

20

mpowell 03.18.19 at 4:36 pm

So what are the factors that prevent a greater allocation of staff time towards teaching as opposed to research? Is the government funding mechanism for research and teaching essentially the same? Or are they different and, if so, how has the budget for teaching changed over the same time interval?

If the government wishes to reduce the amount of spending on research, that is a debatable policy decision, but it is a course of action a democratically elected government may legitimately choose to pursue. If they simply expect staff to teach more students while simultaneously providing an equivalent amount of research time per student taught without a corresponding increase in funding, this is, of course quite unreasonable. It would be interesting to hear just a little more detail about this funding story.

21

SusanC 03.19.19 at 8:48 am

@mpowell. (based on how UK universities work, rather than the Netherlands).

Research output is used as a proxy for evaluating teaching ability, both for individual staff and for departments.

So if you reduce the national level of research funding,
A) your teaching staff now longer have the required level of research output needed to keep their jobs
B) you can’t hire replacements either, because the reduction is across the whole national sector and so the whole pool of qualified applicants for teaching posts (that is, people with recent research publications) has ceased to exist
C) your departments ranking in the research league table tanks, which (my memory of the current uk formula is a bit hazy, so don’t trust me to be up to date here) can cause the government to cut your teaching budget.

Basic point: if you’re hiring people to do job X based on their ability to do some other thing Y, and then Y stops being done by anyone, you now have a major problem with hiring people to do X.

22

SusanC 03.19.19 at 9:16 am

https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/768162/research-excellence-framework-review-evidence-report.pdf

… For a description of the UK system. (The above document specifically mentions the Netherlands as being different).

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