Seven hundred reports of structural overtime at universities

Psychological problems, relationship breakdown, physical symptoms. The WOinActie protest movement is heading to the Labour Inspectorate with more than 700 reports of structural overtime at universities.

photo Bart van Overbeeke

In December, the protest movement WOinActie asked academics to describe problems they were experiencing as a result of the workload at universities. Their intention was to bring a collective complaint to the Labour Inspectorate, and that complaint was delivered today.

“We expected something like 100 complaints,” says Ingrid Robeyns, a lecturer in Utrecht and one of the movement’s representatives. “We got more than 700. And that’s in December, which is a busy month! That gives you an indication of the scale of the issue.”

The complaints have been brought together in a brief report. Among the issues academics report are a lack of sleep, marital problems and stress. “One of my children has developed a fear of failure, possibly partly due to my situation and the signals I’m giving off,” one person writes. Other contributors also brought up the effect the problems are having on their family and their health: “High blood pressure, poor sleep.”


“Academics have such a strong work ethic that we end up damaging ourselves,” says Robeyns. “The government takes advantage of our passion, and politicians can get away with it because we’re such loyal employees.”

Do these complaints reflect the situation of the entire university community? No, says Robeyns: WOinActie’s report is not a scientific study, but rather a collection of complaints. However, those complaints present a shocking picture.

Universities use ‘standard hours’ for teaching and other duties, but there are never enough hours allocated. Robeyns explains that this has financial consequences, too: “Some employees are on a 0.7 FTE contract, even though in practice they work full time.”

Universities have proposed a raft of plans to reduce their employees’ workload, but WOinActie says those plans are not being put into practice. Some also offer academics a course in time management. “That puts the responsibility on the researcher, as if everything will be fine if you just plan your time better.”

Ultimately, the group is aiming to achieve €1.15 billion in structural investment for academia. But will that help with the workload, or will it just add even more work?


Robeyns explains that although extra funding is needed, it won’t solve the problem on its own. “If the money comes in the form of another new research agenda that makes academics compete for funding, that won’t be any help. It has to go directly to the universities, to benefit teachers. No extra management, no PR officers – more teachers. And we have to get rid of the distrust, the idea that they don’t work hard enough.”

Robeyns has personal experience of the problems outlined in the report. “I worked every evening last week. On two nights it was after midnight before I went to bed, and then I was up again at 7. You don’t get enough sleep that way. I work about 55 hours a week, and I know that because I recorded it over a certain period – without that record I could have been exaggerating the problem. The result is that I don’t exercise enough, and I don’t relax enough. I’m 47 now: I don’t know if I can keep this up for another 20 years.”

Her work for WOinActie is an extra burden. “You might say I do it to myself, but I think what we’re doing is really important, and I think we can achieve our goal. Even the minister says another billion euros is needed.”


Robeyns’s children have also noticed how hard she works. “One of them said recently: Mummy, can’t you resign and find another job? Sometimes that’s a very attractive prospect. But I’m passionate about teaching and research; I love teaching young people.”

She also enjoys supervising PhD candidates, “but I do get an uncomfortable feeling sometimes – what will their future be like? And there’s no point moving to a university overseas, because the situation is the same there. I’m speaking as a political philosopher now, but this is a result of the neoliberalism that’s moving through Europe and America. We’re living in an era when the public sector is underfunded, which means that academia is underfunded too.”

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