In the previous edition of this column, my colleague Wies Bontje described 2017 as the Year of Participation. This was a reference to the new Higher Education Act, which extends the mandate of Faculty and University Councils and transforms Programme Committees into participation bodies. However, for the University Council there are even more reasons to consider 2017, and particularly this Spring, as a positive make-over opportunity for Dutch universities.
The University Council sees in the extended Higher Education Act a first step towards giving back to the academic community the ability to influence matters of university management. Rest assured, we do not strive for a situation in which scientists and students actually run or govern the university. After all, we all know that good academics do not necessarily make good managers or administrators.
However, the University Council does want staff and students to be much more influential in deciding if, when and how teaching, research and support at our university is ‘excellent’ or successful. In this regard, the extended Higher Education Act seems to be reversing the trend of stripping academics from their ability to judge these matters and delegating it to systems that “independently measure” the quality of teaching, research and the university at large.
The latter, business-like approach to public universities wrongfully suggests that a university’s health and success can be unequivocally judged by its position in the various international rankings, by the agility of the university’s “flexible outer layer”, by quality assurance protocols and audits, or by the number of graduates.
The occupation of the Maagdenhuis in 2014, the subsequent Rethink movements at Dutch universities, or the collective labour agreement of 2016; they all showed that focusing only on such indicators jeopardises the well-being of staff and students, and threatens a university’s overall health.
But only now, in the spring of 2017, strengthened by the extended Higher Education Act, there seems to be a greater level of political willingness for a serious debate on the “health” of Dutch universities than (ever) before. For example, in 2016, the collective labour agreement could ‘only’ ask from university boards to consider the problem of workload. Now, in the new draft of the 2017 collective agreement, the reduction of workload is a top priority for all university boards. Moreover, all Dutch universities are required to present clearly defined plans for improvement by the end of this year.
The University Council will see to it that investigating and alleviating negative workload will be more than an issue to which university managers pay lip service. In line with our ambition for more influence of the academic community, we want the diagnosis of the problem and ideas for solutions to come from Erasmus staff. To this end, we will make sure, of course, that the results of the recent employee survey are taken very seriously.
Moreover, we are closely collaborating with trade union representation at our university. Together we are currently drawing up the framework for a EUR-wide study in which both academic and support staff get a say in deciding what a good, successful and, most of all, healthy Erasmus University looks like. The Council will then see to it that the outcomes of this study will be vital in the plans for improvement, which the Executive Board will present later in the year. So, as far as the University Council is concerned, the 2017 Spring of Participation is in the air!