The consequences of overtime in Dutch academia

by Ingrid Robeyns on January 20, 2020

Today, I joined three colleagues to head to The Hague to hand over a report of 720 formal complaints of structural overtime in academia and its negative consequences to the Labour Inspectorate. These complaints were filed as a single collective complaint by two labour unions, on behalf of WOinActie, the activist group of academics that tries to improve working and learning conditions in academia. The main claim of WOinActie has been that the Dutch Universities (which are all public), have become inadequately funded due to the rising number of students over the last two decades, and that this has caused structural overtime to be necessary to get the work done, which in turn harms the mental, physical and social well-being of university staff. And it’s also harming the quality of our teaching.

The report released today, which we translated in English (in order to inform and inspire the debate on overtime work in academia internationally), reveals the nature of the negative consequences. Colleagues report negative effects on their mental and physical health, sleep deprivation, constant worrying, deterioration of their friendships and other social relations, insufficient time for self-care including doing exercise, and so forth. The main problem is that the notional hours that are given to teach a course or do supervision (cfr. this post on PhD-supervision) are inadequate, and hence a 70% teaching load leads to a more-than-fulltime workload. And since everyone also wants to, needs to, and/or is expected to do research, that also still needs to be done. Add some administration and/or leadership tasks, and societal outreach, and we easily make 55 hours a week. For colleagues who only teach, and who are on the lowest pay scales, this also means they have troubles buying a house or starting a family, since those contracts are almost always part-time, and hence also create financial stress.

The good news is that we got a lot of press coverage – basically about all newspapers, most university online magazines (here’s one even in English from Delft University), several radio programs, and the main TV news bulletin. Media coverage has emerged to be crucial in our struggle to restore public funding to the universities; in the end, the main lesson I learnt so far after two years of activism is that there is no point in being right (that is, having the right analysis/arguments) if one is unable to gain power to also win one’s case politically/strategically. Politically, the situation now is that, after several public debates and private conversations, the Minister of Higher Educated has acknowledged that the universities need a structural increase of their yearly budgets with Euro (one billion!) but she claims she doesn’t have that money available.

Also, another intermediate conclusion is that without the labour unions, we would never have gotten here. They helped us in navigating labour law, they helped to practically organise and sponsored manifestations we had over the years, they have hosted some of our national meetings. I have said this many time on twitter, but will repeat it here: colleagues, please join a union.



Martin Lenz 01.22.20 at 3:27 am

Thanks for writing this. Here is an attempt to make sense of the situation:


Working Stiff 01.22.20 at 9:16 am

Interesting post about declining work/life balance and academia work quality in Dutch universities. I feel like filing this under “when lionized European higher education model faces structural realities of that same lionized model” or #everybodyelsesjob #whatelseisnew #nosympathy


John Quiggin 01.22.20 at 11:35 am

@2 The standard lines of the blackleg since workers first organized themselves, now in hashtag form.


Matt 01.22.20 at 12:00 pm

Without knowing more about both local labor law and whatever labor agreements might be in place, it’s hard for me to know what might be practicably possible, but if ever there were a situation that sounded like it would be fit for a “work to rule” action, this would be it – people working what their “contact hours” and other nominal hours and not a bit more for some time, which would grind the university to a halt. If they are going to treat you like hourly employees, then you should at least be paid overtime for hours beyond the nominal ones, etc.


Alan White 01.22.20 at 4:04 pm

Thank you for this. In the US public educators are too often subject to the whims of right-leaning legislators. About 10 years ago University of Wisconsin faculty were granted the right to join into union, but after Republicans swept into office in 2010, that was swiftly rescinded, using the politics of resentment to cast public workers as some kind of elite “Haves” against the general public “Have-nots”. I recall that in our campus mail room I literally had my union card first in hand as I learned simultaneously that it meant nothing. Workers everywhere need to push back against the strong anti-union politics in the US that have grown since the Reagan era.


Collin Street 01.23.20 at 3:26 am

“Individual actions multiplied across society can’t make things better” you see with proposed strike action is in all respwcts the flipside of the “individual actions multiplied across society can’t make things worse” you see with climate change, say, or weapons in the US. Sometimes it just seems as if individual and collective actions are seen as having fundamentally incommesurable effects.


Ingrid Robeyns 01.23.20 at 12:20 pm

Matt – what’s interesting is that after 2 years of actions, the responsible minister has acknowledged that Dutch universities are underfunded for 1 billion Euro (WOinActie says: 1,15 billion; the Dutch universities united in ‘VSNU’ say 1,5 billion). There are national elections in the Netherlands in March 2021, and the political parties are now starting to write on their election programs. So we hope that we can get a commitment of the political parties restoration of public funding of the universities back to a level that doesn’t require us to structurally overwork (unpaid) so much. The problem with that hope is that HE is not the only one that got cut over the last years, there are similar prblems with other levels of education, the elderly care sector, and other parts of the welfare state… So let’s see what happens…

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