Dutch university protests, start of another year…

by Ingrid Robeyns on September 5, 2020

Last Monday was the opening of the academic year at Dutch Universities. Over the last three years, it has become a tradition for the activist group WOinActie to organise some sort of protest. This year, there was the challenge of how to organise a protest given COVID, but a solution was found.

WOinActie organised together with the labour union protest bicycle tours between various Dutch universities. The idea was to symbolise the lives of temporary part-time teaching staff, who teach a few years (often on a contract that doesn’t allow for research) at one university, and then have to move on to another university, since they are not offered permanent contracts (they universities don’t want to offer those because they claim they can’t take the financial risks). But those temporary instructors teach courses that are part of the regular curriculum, and the claim of WOinActie is that work that is permanent should be done by tenured teachers; instead, the Netherlands has in international comparison one of the highest percentages of temporary teaching staff. Of course, the protest was used to talk again to the press, and also to have a brief, open-air and corona-proof, conversation with the minister of HE before the cyclists took off at the University of Nijmegen to cycle to the University of Wageningen.

The students from Utrecht University supporting WOinActie painted 10.000 red squares in Utrecht, from the historic Academy Building in the city center all the way out of town to the University Headquarters (Bestuursgebouw) at Utrecht Science Park.
Each of the red squares symbolises one hour of unpaid work that is done by staff at Utrecht University each day; the students estimated that this amounts to 10.000 hours on a daily (workday) basis, and protest that their education should not depend on the unpaid overwork of their teachers. That estimation is probably an overestimation, but the point stands. It was pretty impressive to see those red squares through town, as you can see in this clip that my son Ischa made: #10.000 In Groningen, students also staged a protest around the 10.000 hours.

Perhaps it’s good, for our international readers, to give a few background details. We are talking here of a country with a population of 17 million people, where higher education is part of the public sector, and to a large extent funded by the government. Access to university programs is open to all who qualify, whereby having an appropriate-level degree from secondary school is the entry requirement; only some university programs, such as medicine, have a numerus fixus. Given that, for decades, subsequent Dutch governments have aimed to be a ‘knowledge economy’, their policy has been to encourage young people to attend university. The numbers of university students have risen with 68% since 2000. But in that period, the per-studentcapita-funding has gone down with 25%. Hence, WOinActie has estimated that the universities are lacking between 4000 and 6000 professors, whose work is done by the instructors and professors that have a job. Hence the persistent structural overwork.

WOinActie therefore demands adequate funding for Dutch Universities (and I should disclose that I’m an active member of this group). According to our calculations, at least 1,15 billion Euros should be structurally added to the budgets of Universities to hire (assistant/associate/full) professors, according to the Universities in their capacities as employers, that number is around 1,5 billion. One of our victories is that slightly less than a year ago, the Minister of HE has agreed that HE needs at least one billion extra due to years of underfunding. But she has repeatedly said in conversations with us that in the current coalition, this will not happen, since the formal “coalition contract” doesn’t allow for this increase in the budget. Although this is a disputed claim (since money has been freed up for various other causes), it means that we have to pressure the various political parties to commit to restoring funding to an adequate level when the next elections take place.

Finally, the third event that happened was the publication of a pamflet that I co-wrote with Rens Bod, professor of computational humanities at the University of Amsterdam, and Remco Breuker, professor of Korea studies at the University of Leiden. In that pamflet, called 40 stellingen over de Wetenschap (probably best translated with 40 propositions about the Universities, although ‘wetenschap” = the sciences and humanities) we bring together all the analyses that WOinActie have made in the past year, but also argue for various other changes, that would restore the university as a community of researchers, thinkers and students, rather than as a factory under extreme pressure to produce degrees and high-ranked publications, and having an internal governance taken from the New Public Management ideologies. We’re not to first to make these analyses, and I fear we’re not the last, but the only thing we can do is to keep the pressure on. We chose to publish this pamflet now since we are having elections in March next year, and hence we want to make political parties more aware of the need to restore funding to the universities, and, as far as we are concerned, also to change the law on higher education in various ways.



John Quiggin 09.06.20 at 6:49 am

Lots of similar developments in Australia, aggravated by the loss of income from international (mainly Chinese) students, on whose financial contributions we are heavily dependent.


Matt 09.06.20 at 7:09 am

The interesting development in Australia in relation to the massive use of casuals is the recent ruling against the University of Melbourne for engaging in large-scale wage theft from people on casual contracts, in particular by paying them “piece work” rates that they knew full well didn’t cover the time it took to complete the task, and requiring them to mis-lable certain activities. These activities are not, alas, limited to the University of Melbourne (the richest university in the country, and a massive user of casual labor) but seems to extend to a very large percentage of the universities. A reckoning may be coming, but exactly what the outcome will be isn’t clear yet. See here for some info: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-08-05/university-of-melbourne-exposed-in-decade-long-wage-theft-case/12519588


Fake Dave 09.06.20 at 7:15 am

The US has a similar (worse?) hierarchy of higher education work with the “full” tenure-track professors doing only a small portion of the actual teaching. My dad has been teaching college classes for almost 30 years without a PhD and at various points has been an “assistant,” “adjunct,” “part-time faculty” or “lecturer” at at least a dozen different institutions (usually 2-3 at once). Despite what his students call him he has never been “real” professor and his pay and job security reflect that. Strangely, the community colleges and state schools where he works provide the sole source of employment for thousands of “part-time” or “temporary” educators yet they never seem to be looking for more permanent solutions to their apparent long term staffing deficits.


Zamfir 09.07.20 at 9:23 am

I just read some interviews with Remco Breuker and Rens Bod in the nrc, and of course your posts here.

One question that struck me: is there a generational difference here? In particular in the interview with Remco Breukers, I got the impression that the job had changed, that he had not signed up for the current state of the job.

I am a good decade younger the pamflet authors. When my wife and I were vaguely considering to go in academia, the ‘WOinActie’ view of university life was more or less taken for granted by all the people I knew. Long hours, temporary contracts, lots of moving around, not enough money or time for good teaching, eternal battles for grant money. If anything, this was presented as a good thing, it’s how the dedicated wheat would be separated from the chaff.

Is this a relatively new development? At the time, it felt like an eternal tradition, always been like that and unlikely to change. But I suppose that traditions can be younger than they seem.

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