The Institute of Social Studies in The Hague – part of EUR – has to face heavy budget cuts. For efficiency reasons, part of the employees will be relocated to Rotterdam, to the displeasure of many. “If you want to achieve something together with us, you will have to make sure we have a feeling of co-ownership of the process.”

Text: Mieke Fiers

“Just how many students must have burst out in tears in this room,” asks master student Leny Hernandez with a smile. We are sitting in student counsellor Martin Blok’s office at the Institute of Social Studies. The walls are decorated with many colourful souvenirs from all over the world. In front of the door lies an orange carpet, a prize the ISS won for the warm welcome it extends to foreign students. The other students in the room acknowledge Hernandez’ statement with a nod. They too stormed into the room in panic at some point – or to share the haps, ask a question, for a simple chat.

All doors are open at the ISS, and everyone, be it staff, researchers or students, is at home in the stately but colourful building in the centre of The Hague. It is a home away from home, as many ISSers call it. Every September about 170 master students from lesser-developed countries all over the world come to the ISS for an intensive 15-month programme. They are under a lot of pressure to graduate within the given term. Pressure from their families, their community, the organisations they work for. A few had never left their country before, some leave their children back home, many have problems with Dutch bureaucracy; insurance and residence permits. Martin Blok calls the students a high-risk group.

What makes the ISS special is more than the exceptionally amiable support, the family feel to it, and the numerous activities, including: seminars, cultural evenings, debates, or weekly choir rehearsals. The entire educational model of the ISS is based on socially cohesive community where effective and creative learning is the norm, as ISS dean Leo de Haan proudly describes. This is one of the reasons why many students choose for the ISS.

Destination Rotterdam

But there are concerns among students, staff, PhDs, and even alumni – who launched an online petition. The ISS will have to undergo reorganization due to heavy budget cuts. The plans foresee a large part of the supporting services to be outsourced to the EUR’s Shared Service Centres (SSCs). Work processes as well as employees will therefore be relocated to Rotterdam. That includes the back office: tasks that do not require contact with students or staff. Tasks such as registering grades or making invoices. Others – ones that do require direct contact – should remain in The Hague.

The goal is to cut costs, to do the same work with fewer people. The services will have to deliver the same results with 20% less staff. No lay-offs are required, as several temporary contracts have recently not been extended. Lilian Jillissen, director of SSC Education, Research & Student Affairs (OO&S), has been consulting ISS employees how to carry out the integration ever since the reorganisation was announced. Efficiency can be improved upon, she says, without reducing the quality of provided services. For example by using SSC systems that automate manual tasks. Employees will be placed in one team, learn from each other, and substitute for each other in case of absenteeism. Looking at it from this perspective, the budget cuts are necessitating a modernization that was a long time coming.

“It goes without saying that everything will be customized to requirements,” she states. “And of course several colleagues  will be available for student and staff questions every day. How exactly we will arrange this depends on what we will agree on.”

Notably, those three, four or five people at ISS is a high number for EUR standards. For Philosophy, assuming the same number of students, there would be one. For the 170 master students, fifty academics and around eighty PhD’s of ISS, the reorganisation plan envisions sixty fulltime staff. Fifteen of the ISS staff members are directly involved in policy and student support – the tasks to be outsourced to SSC OO&S.

There ís no back office

On paper it all makes sense. But in practice, on the part on outsourcing to SSC OO&S, it works differently. In the extended family that is the ISS, functions such as back office or front office are not clearly delineated. Specifically, sometimes several functions are carried out by one person. And due to the atmosphere and culture of close collaboration, a back office hardly exists – everyone is involved with everyone.

Take Sharmini Bisessar. She studied Business Administration at an American university with 40 thousand students. At this point she has been working at ISS for fourteen years. As Programme Administrator, she is responsible for a group of master students: welcoming them, their schedules, study trips, organizing seminars, and so on. Her function is meant to be relocated to Rotterdam, at SSC OO&S. And if the functions were all that mattered that would be fine. But Bisessar does more than organizing. “I am also their advisor and their friend.” Bisessar refers to herself as a mother goose, “followed around by ducklings.” Students come to visit her all the time. She has lunch with her forty students once every month and organizes a meeting on the winter blues. “We have students who are diagnosed with cancer, we have pregnant women who are far from their home. We don’t say ‘that’s not our problem’, because it most definitely is our concern.”

No guarantees

“It’s not just a motherly concern”, as Loes Keysers adds, “It’s the core of ISS’ effective, small-scale, international education and research.” Keysers is Chairwoman of the Institute Council of the ISS. “The ISS work culture is a coproduction of knowledge where all those involved – students, academic staff and employees – work together from the beginning to the end of the study period. Therefore it does not merely demand specific administrative services for a specific unit price, but an attitude and ability of the supportive staff to be a coproducer, a part of the team.”

That is why the Institute Council is not in favour of the plans on a number of points – especially the outsourcing to SSC OO&S. But according to ISS dean Leo de Haan the ISS model will not have to be compromised. “Sound arrangements with the SSC OO&S are necessary, and we are in the process of making those.” And that is where the problem lies. The council will not agree to a reorganisation as long as no guarantees are given that the ISS model is paramount and that this be reflected in the implementation. The current plan is not keeping up to this promise, according to several ISSers.

That’s not how we work

A major irritant is that many ISSers feel no one is listening to them. “No one is opposed to change and transformation,” says South African master student Athi Majija. “In our home countries, many of us work for organizations that manage processes like these. But if you want to achieve something together with us, you will have to make sure we have a feeling of co-ownership of the process. We aren’t clients, we are stakeholders.”

Dean Leo de Haan acknowledges that the consultation of students, PhD’s and staff could have been more attentive. “I am currently playing catch-up,” he reports. “I have learned from this and, in the future, intend to interact much more explicitly and systematically with these important parts of the ISS community.”

The question is whether communicating will be enough to calm things down. The entire approach to the reorganisation has struck a nerve with several ISSers. “That’s not how we work,” says Indonesian PhD student Tamara Soukotta. “The reorganisation presupposes uniformity: ISS will have to adapt to the way things are done at the EUR. But we work on the basis of diversity.” Yet another problem, the students deem the solutions purported by the reorganisati

on plan typically neo-liberal. The larger the better because economies of scale increase efficiency. But that is not the only way to approach a problem, the students stress. Learning this is precisely one of the reasons they came to the ISS. “I previously studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), but came to the ISS because you learn how to think in a broader spectrum here,” says master student Mohammed Hadi. “Altogether the process and the outcome is a rejection of what the ISS stands for.” “Most likely that wasn’t the intention,” Soukotta adds. “It is simply another way of looking at things.”

What is the ISS?

The ISS, situated in The Hague, offers master programmes, courses, and does research in the field of development studies. Students are mainly professionals – average age is 28 – who are employed by the government over non-governmental organisations in developing countries. ISS furthermore supports about 80 PhD’s. The studies and PhD tracks are financed by scholarships and grants, provided by the organisation they work for, their family, the community, or via a personal loan.

The ISS is part of the Erasmus University since 2009, characterized as a sui generis institution, unique in its sort.  The EUR is fully responsible for the management.

What is going on?

The ISS has to cut costs. Its primary financier, the Ministry of Education, already reduced funding by 10 percent, will do so again on 1 January 2014, and again in 2017.

In June 2012, the dean of the ISS – comparable to a faculty dean – announced a reorganisation in order to account for the budget cuts. The Institute Council – comparable to a faculty council – and the University Council formulated several conditions that would have to be met by the reorganisation.

The reorganisation was meant to be implemented in July 2013, but the plans have only now reached the University Council. The Institute Council judged that the plans do not meet all conditions and criticized the process. The advice was positive in some parts, negative in others. ISS dean Leo de Haan is however proceeding to present the plans to the University Council. De Haan has made some adjustments with regards to the phases of the academic reorganisation and the teaching-and-learning environment, he informs via email. He also suggested adjustments concerning the premises of integration with the SSC OO&S.

The University Council will vote on the 25th of June.