‘Quality young teachers is not rewarded'

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Imagine: you have obtained your master's degree and are applying for a nice job as a junior teacher at Utrecht University. You are hired. You work hard and grow as an educational expert. Unfortunately, your career ends after four years. Not because you do not qualify as a teacher, but because you have not obtained a PhD. For this reason, you will not be given a permanent contract

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The above scenario symbolises the situation in which many beginning teachers find themselves. They have a temporary appointment and if they do not obtain a PhD, there is no prospect of a permanent contract. Currently, 23 percent of all teachers have a temporary appointment at Utrecht University. Spokesman Maarten Post: ''We understand that it is very unfortunate for the temporary teachers, but a cross-fertilisation of education and research is considered crucial at Utrecht University. The PhD is an aptitude test for doing research, just like a ‘bko’ (university teaching qualification, ed.) is a test for teaching. The principle that permanent contracts are reserved for people with a combined function of teaching and research is therefore laid down in the framework of the university's career policy.”

According to Post, this does not change the fact that the university also needs temporary (junior) teachers, among other things to cope with the growth and decline in student numbers. “These teachers deliver high quality work and we want to appreciate that better. Since the 2017-2019 collective labour agreement, it has been possible to give teachers four-year contracts at the outset, limited development time, for example for a university teaching qualification and/or for conducting research, and a minimum appointment of 0.7 FTEs. It was decided in 2018 to implement this across the entire university in order to tackle the work pressure as well. It is work in progress. It turns out to be unmanageable to put this into practice; for example, it requires more planning in order to have a lower number of teachers with larger, permanent appointments teach different courses."

The quality of the teacher is irrelevant
The personnel policy of UU sometimes leads to strange situations. For example, teachers who are highly popular among students regularly have to leave the university because they have not obtained a PhD. Examples are Robbie Voss and Pieter de Bordes, former teachers at the Faculty of Social Sciences. Also Djoeke van der Sluis has to leave this year despite her nomination for the teacher's talent award.

De Bordes explains how he experienced his departure: ''For four years I worked as a teacher and thesis supervisor at Utrecht University. In addition, I have been working for several years in my spare time on an external promotion at the University of Groningen. I have a passion for both education and research, I know my way around Utrecht, and I am good at my job. I certainly didn't want to leave. I had also taken on a new task as teacher-coordinator to streamline the familiarisation process of new teachers and to reduce the workload of the permanent staff. Together with colleagues I organised the symposium ‘Lange leve de tijdelijke docent?!’ (Long live the temporary teacher). I think it's a shame that my work at Utrecht University had to stop.”

Last year, outraged students protested the departure of Robbie Voss. To no avail. He now (again) has a temporary position as a teacher, this time at the University of Amsterdam. Voss indicates in an interview that the protests at Utrecht University were both the highlight and the low point of his professional career. “It was a great compliment, but also sad that the fact that I did my job excellently does not matter to education managers.” He thinks that's weird. “Quality is thus not rewarded, even though it could be. You can monitor the development and performance of teachers and keep good teachers on a permanent contract. This benefits everyone: students, colleagues, and the teachers themselves. The way in which you now have any chance of getting a permanent contract as a temporary teacher is by obtaining a PhD, but you don't get the opportunity to do that in most teaching jobs. You have to do it in your own time. Moreover, this promotion requirement is not mentioned when recruiting new (junior) teachers, as can be seen from this vacancy.”

An undesirable situation
Pieter de Bordes believes that the university should choose a side when it comes to temporary teachers. If you say as a university that you stand for research and education, then there should indeed be researchers that give lectures. The university should either give new teachers the opportunity to obtain a PhD or give them priority regarding research proposals, or it should dismiss the entire flexible shell of temporary teachers. That might be a bit drastic. What's going on right now, however, is not tenable either. Researchers work hard at writing research proposals and buy off their teaching time by letting young teachers without a PhD handle the lectures. Every couple of years these new teachers have to be trained again, which requires a lot of effort from the new staff as well as the permanent staff. As a university and as a country, you shouldn't want that.”

Professor Annelien de Dijn is working with WOinActie to improve the position of temporary teachers. “What keeps me up at night is that the current, temporary teachers at all Dutch universities work far too many hours. On average, they work overtime 50 percent of the time. Temporary teachers are less likely to speak out about this. Once they raise concerns about their overtime, they are often already working at the university a while and they almost have to leave. You saw this with Pieter de Bordes as well, who, in addition to the symposium, also released the manifesto ‘Weg met de wegwerpdocent’ (Away with the Wergwergwerpdocent), but who is already gone from the university. A positive aspect of his actions, in collaboration with the union, is that a concrete result was achieved. Since 2018, temporary teachers have been given four-year contracts, which provides more air for permanent and temporary staff.” Before that, as a temporary teacher, you were often given a one-year or two-year contract. De Dijn does not advocate permanent contracts for teachers without a PhD. “The core of academic education is that as a student you get lectures from researchers. You could and should require that of temporary teachers as well.”

An alternative solution
Jan Boersma of FNV Education & Research perceives this issue as less black-and-white. “I think that teachers should also be able to obtain permanent employment without promotion. That can be done, for example, by giving teachers 20 percent teaching-related research time. They can spend that time, for example, following research developments in their field as closely as possible. This also works the other way around: researchers should always spend part of their time on teaching.”

A new combined function as a junior teacher-researcher could be an opportunity for ambitious teachers and researchers at the moment, says Boersma. “Before the last collective labour agreement, we introduced that combined function.” The Utrecht bachelor's programme Liberal Arts & Sciences uses this combined function. There, part-time PhD candidates are now given full-time contracts for six years, in which they are 50 percent PhD candidates and teach 50 percent of the time. In this way, these teachers can obtain both a university teaching qualification and a PhD, the two basic qualifications that are now required for a permanent contract.

Boersma agrees that work pressure is an even more urgent problem than the fixed duration of contracts. “Not only for temporary, but also for permanent employees. The four-year contracts already help enormously, taking some of the ‘training pressure' away from permanent staff. By dealing less forcedly with permanent contracts and employing excellent teachers or teacher-researchers on a permanent basis, the situation will become more workable for everyone.”

Maarten Post indicates that there are currently no plans to change the current policy and make a permanent appointment without a PhD, but with research time, possible.

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