Screenshot of the Zoom meeting

A debate on the future of universities: “If nothing else works, we have to go on strike”


What do universities need in the future? That was the theme of an online debate organised by the Dutch Academy of Science (KNAW in the Dutch acronym). Among the suggestions, there were calls for a strike and criticism about academics turning a blind eye to inappropriate behaviour.

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The meeting was inspired by 40 Propositions on Science, a book published earlier this year by UU professor Ingrid Robeyns and professors Rens Bod from the University of Amsterdam and Remco Breuker from Leiden University. The trio is the driving force behind WOinActie (‘Universities in Action’), a protest movement calling for a new kind of university.

In her opening address, Robeyns said that a “tragedy” is happening at Dutch universities: they are structurally short of money, yet they continue to provide top quality education. Few other countries have so many universities near the top of the international rankings, she noted. “That’s only possible because of the systematic exploitation of academic and support staff.”

Hidden curriculum
KNAW President Ineke Sluiter stressed why it is important for students to be taught by researchers. “There is such a thing as a hidden curriculum”, she said, explaining that students get so much more from their lecturers than what is listed in the study guide, such as cultivating an inquisitive and critical attitude. Therefore, funding for university education should always allow for “research time”.

Rianne Letschert, Maastricht University’s Rector, chose to highlight the perspective of a university manager (“which some of you might find awkward”), specifically about social safety in the workplace. “As rector, it is my responsibility to pick up the pieces in cases that have escalated, sometimes over a period of decades, and cases where entire faculties have chosen to ignore what was going on.”

She doesn’t believe in “yet more protocols”, but rather in good leadership. “And that starts with yourself”, she said. “We are quite happy to hold one another to account on our academic credentials, but not when it comes to our behaviour”. In her view, this shouldn’t solely be a responsibility of those “at the top” – professors, associate professors and lecturers all play a part.

The chair of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), Pieter Duisenberg, emphasized that this debate is a complex one. He pointed out the “trilemma” of accessibility, quality and efficiency: changes to one will always impact the other, but politicians don’t always take this into account.

Duisenberg’s was not the only criticism directed at politicians in The Hague. “They don’t always make things easy for us”, said Sluiter, referring to the recent parliamentary debate on diversity in higher education and research.

Her words were echoed by the chair of the Dutch Research Council (NWO), Stan Gielen, who spoke of “knee-jerk criticisms” and micromanagement. “It is quite remarkable that university diversity officers are the subject of parliamentary debates in The Hague”, he said.

In Rianne Letschert’s view, too many new ideas are being thrown around in parliament. “We don’t have the politicians on our side”.

The last resort
WOinActie had the most radical proposals, as expected. Isn't it time we just locked all the doors in protest? “Why can’t you find the courage to tell them that we simply can’t do our job with the funding we’ve been allocated?”, asked Professor Bod. “Find that courage.”

For Rianne Letschert, that could only be “the very last resort”. She mentioned that she once said to the minister that there will come a time when she will call for a strike. “But I’m not there yet. First I want to see whether the next government will be any more accommodating to our sector.”

What about telling the new coalition that they must have the resources they need to be good employers and, if not, there will be no new academic year in 2022? “That will give the new government a whole year to put things right”, Robeyns suggested.

Ineke Sluiter also expressed reservations about a strike, especially in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. “We don’t need to beat around the bush: left or right, more funding is needed. But large swathes of the public sector are also underfunded and need more money just as badly as we do. Should healthcare workers and the police also go on strike?”

If the universities closed their doors, that would do “incalculable” damage to students, Sluiter continued. And that’s the dilemma: “We feel genuinely responsible for our students.” She concluded: “The worst thing is: that's precisely why teaching staff always end up working harder than is good for them.”

Professor Breuker understood the hesitation, but argued that, in the long run, future generations of students will actually benefit from a more radical protest. “We can always find a reason not to do it”, he said. “But the coronavirus crisis will soon be behind us. Will that be the right time to close the universities?”

He added that students are adults who are perfectly capable of understanding that their education is only being made possible by their lecturers working overtime. Therefore, he believes that most of them would be sympathetic to a strike.

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