Rathenau: academia is performing well, but work pressure is high

Researchers work a surprising amount of overtime and absenteeism is on the rise. That is a ‘point for consideration,’ says the Rathenau Institute in a report on the state of affairs in Dutch academia. Professors Ingrid Robeyns, Remco Breuker en Rens Bod, who are the driving force behind the WOinActie protest movement, are especially concerned about it, and have published a manifesto in which they are arguing for a new concept of the university.

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Researchers currently work around an additional quarter of their hours in overtime, according to the Rathenau Institute’s report TheBalance of Science, published yesterday. This means that if they are contracted for four days per week, they actually work five. That is more than other university-educated workers, who typically put in ten percent overtime. Furthermore, absenteeism is increasing. On average, scientific staff call in sick three or four days per year – more than their peers outside academia.

Clearly, work pressure in academia is high and many researchers are struggling with the uncertainty of temporary contracts, according to the report. However, the problems occur not just among PhD students and postgraduates, who face fierce competition. Even researchers with a permanent contract are feeling the pressure.

High quality

Still, it is not all doom and gloom in the Dutch scientific community. In many areas, things are actually going well. The quality of the work being done is high, and there is also a lot of collaboration with businesses and public authorities, meaning the research that is being conducted has an impact on society. With open access, things are moving in the right direction as well, as more and more publications are freely available to everyone. In addition, there is increasing interest in science among the general public and confidence is high, despite a small group of sceptics.

This explains why the Rathenau Institute is not ringing the alarm bell concerning work pressure, in contrast to the WOinActie protest movement (see in the box below this article). To the Institute, it is nothing more than an important ‘point for consideration’. But can things really be good if researchers are working so much overtime and absenteeism is on the rise?

“You hear stories of researchers who are struggling”, says Alexandra Vennekens, one of the authors. “It’s not entirely new. We looked into it in the past. It’s linked to how academia works, with a lot of competition and short-term projects. The political and institutional bodies are aware of this, and action is being taken.”

This calm tone may be a result of the report’s objective: the intention is not to take a position in the debate, but to “create a basis for that debate”, as Director Melanie Peters writes in her foreword. Work pressure is not the only point of consideration. For example, the independence of academia – a potential drawback of collaborating with other parties – can also be called into question. Institutions will continually have to ask themselves whether collaborations fit their strategy and how their own independence can be guaranteed, advises the Rathenau Institute.

Stop taking advantage of scientists

Professors Ingrid Robeyns (Utrecht University), Remco Breuker (Leiden University) and Rens Bod (University of Amsterdam) believe that scientists should stand up against the existing conditions. In a pamphlet with fourthy propositions they are arguing for a new concept of the university. The main thrust of their criticism is that universities are run too much like businesses, which flies in the face of academic values. Mutual solidarity is being undermined and scientists are being forced to do far too much extra work without being paid. Students deserve better, too.

Dutch universities are performing particularly well. Isn’t that the case?

Robeyns: “Yes it is, but that's because our academic staff have such high levels of motivation. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t enormous pressure on them. They’re being taken advantage of. A lot of the outstanding research and teaching work that they’re doing goes largely unpaid. It’s terrible when university managers say how proud they are of what is being achieved but fail to acknowledge that has come about through an enormous amount of unpaid labour.”

Why are academics letting that happen?

Breuker: “Academics tend to shy away from activism. I don't see myself as an activist either. But at the moment, we’re having to work so hard that it’s unhealthy, with constant applications for funding and countless temporary employment contracts. People prefer to look the other way because when you look at things objectively, the truth is rather ugly.”

You also want to abolish the Association of Universities (VSNU) in the Netherlands. What’s the thinking behind that?

Robeyns: “The approach of the Association has not worked. It has failed to prevent years of budget cuts at our universities. So we need a change of strategy among our leadership. It would be better to have a national senate, with elected university representatives.”

Breuker: “One of the propositions in the book is that we don’t necessarily even need to have universities. But if we do choose to have them, we have to fund them adequately. In the end, you only get what you pay for. At the moment our universities are surviving on borrowed time.”

You have denounced the fierce competition for research funding. Could it be that too many people work in academia?

Robeyns: “Given the number of extra hours we’re all working, I’d say we have too few. In practice, thirty to forty percent of a student's teaching currently consists of structural, unpaid overtime worked by teaching staff.”

More democracy, an elected rector, and fewer concepts borrowed from the world of business is what you want. But won’t that make managers less agile and responsive?

Breuker: “Democracy can be impractical, that’s true, but that's the point. It may be more difficult to run the university, but it will be run better.”

Robeyns: “At the moment, academics have very little influence, not even through the participatory bodies. It’s not enough for the rector just to be selected from the world of academia. We need a debate about who should be representing academic staff.”

You also want to see fewer students at university. Why is that?

Robeyns: “Not necessarily fewer students, but we do want to see the right students in the right place. At university, students learn to think in an academic way. And that should be their aim, not a higher salary or a better job. Students whose talents are more practical in nature should be encouraged to attend the universities of applied sciences (HBO).”

Breuker: “It’s not that we’re saying: we don't need your 'sort’ here. The university also offers a kind of vocational training, training people to become academics. But the prestige around universities is getting in the way at the moment. You want students who are intrinsically motivated. University programmes shouldn’t be ‘higher’ than HBO programmes, but at the same level.”

What needs to be done to turn things around?

Robeyns: “The university community needs to stand up and resist: students and teaching staff together. But so many academics are fatalistic. They don't have the energy to oppose what’s happening.”

’40 stellingen over de wetenschap’ (‘40 Propositions on Science’) by Rens Bod, Remco Breuker and Ingrid Robeyns was published this month by Uitgeverij Boom.

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