Those looking for a stable career are better off casting their nets outside of academics. This particularly applies to postdoctoral researchers, for whom permanent posts are becoming increasingly scarcer. What’s the deal with all these fixed-term contracts, and how detrimental are they? “Barring professional football, academics has the most people working on a temporary basis.”
Steven de Rooij has officially been a scholar since 2008, and since then has only had fixed-term contracts. He’s currently attached to Leiden University as a postdoc, where he’s undertaking statistical research, presently with a three-year contract. When he completed his master degree in theoretical computer science at Amsterdam University fourteen years ago he had a decision to make: to obtain a doctorate or not?
“At the time my professor said: you have to give this some proper thought. If you want a guaranteed stable job, then I wouldn’t recommend it,” recalls De Rooij. That advice took him aback, but he nonetheless opted for the promotion. “I was very keen on research. I wasn’t concerned about the rest of my career, so I set out with a positive mindset.”
Nine years and four temporary postdoc jobs later – including at Eindhoven University of Technology and the Amsterdam Centre for Mathematics and Computer Science (CWI) –De Rooij appreciates where his professor was coming from. “In hindsight, I must say he was right. The number of permanent posts is scarce and the competition is immense.” What his next step will be after his present contract has ended, De Rooij doesn’t know yet.
All the same, he believes a permanent post in academics is no longer an option. “Over the last few years I’ve applied a couple of times for positions such as university lecturer, but only ten are selected from the hundreds of applicants, applicants who have numerous published publications, and a great deal of international experience to boot.” Apart from two years at Cambridge, he has no further international research on his CV, which is impeding his chances of a permanent post.
At Eindhoven University of Technology, more than half of the scholars have a flexi contract, and Erasmus University Rotterdam, similarly, stands at fifty percent. The University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Tilburg score much lower.
A spokesperson reveals that at Eindhoven University of Technology it’s rising rapidly. Which is why many lecturers are joining, all of whom start off with a fixed four-year term contract. On the proviso they develop well, they have “a chance of a permanent post”.
Moreover, of old the TU/e employs many toios: trainee technology designers. Just as doctoral candidates, they all have a temporary appointment.
Erasmus University puts the high number of temporary lecturers down to its problem-based learning, where students work in small tutorials. This in turn necessitates many tutors. “In light of fluctuating student numbers, temporary appointments apply to those tutors.” If you leave those tutors aside, a mere eighteen percent are employed on a temporary basis.
Both universities say they adhere to the collective labour agreements that must ensure fewer lecturers are in temporary employment. Contracts exceeding four years are not included in those agreements.
De Rooij does find his uncertain situation awkward, but isn’t stressed out by it. “I’m quite a relaxed person at heart, but that said, it isn’t ideal. It’s hard to make ground, socially too. You arrive at a university where colleagues join you, but then soon leave. So you don’t tend to invest in such contacts, which makes things rather lonely.”
“I am, I admit, a bit disappointed in academics. My father, an emeritus professor of history, determined my expectations. If you did your work well and made the right contacts – he decreed – then a nice appointment would naturally follow at a given point, just as night follows day. But evidently that was rather a different era.”
According to the Scientists’ Union (VAWO), it illustrates the situation in which an increasing number of young scholars find themselves. The VAWO has disputed flexi jobs at universities for a while now. According to chairwoman Marijtje Jongsma, the percentage of ‘flexi scholars’, including doctoral candidates, currently stands at around sixty percent, with all the corresponding consequences this entails: incapacity for work is poorly covered by social security, gaps arise in one’s pension accrual, and large numbers of graduates live with uncertainty. And, last but not least, it’s detrimental to academics.
The VAWO receives a great deal of complaints about this and exerts pressure on universities to create more job security. “As a scholar it takes you years to develop into an expert within your area of expertise. After that you don’t want to be a ‘disposable scholar’, but simply to enjoy a permanent post.”
Further to pressure by the unions, the 2015 university collective labour agreements determined the rise in fixed-term contracts must be halted: no more than 22 percent of all educational appointments offered was allowed to be for four years or less.
That all sounds very positive, but in practice universities can get around the agreements with all sorts of tricks. “Some universities have comprehensively offered their teaching staff five-year contracts, as a result of which they officially stay under the 22% threshold. But with a five-year contract you’re still temporarily employed. We really wanted people to be given permanent employment, but that’s still not happening enough by far”, explains Jongsma.
The tenure track, via which young researchers have to work hard for a couple of years to prove they deserve a permanent place at a university, offers such a contract that exceeds four years. Universities place good odds on future permanent employment, but in day-to-day practice this often falls short, deems Jongsma. “If you can attain your targets, a fixed-term contract is hopeful, but if not, you’re in trouble.”
Academic lecturers must ‘university hop’ out of sheer necessity: after a short lectureship tenure their time is up and they must transfer to a different university. “Everyone in our arena has heard stories about young lecturers who tip each other off as to where the work is. As such, they hop throughout the country,” tells Jongsma.
These sorts of developments do not give a positive picture: why would you indeed still want to go into academics? After all, with a master degree under your belt, you’d have opportunities in other sectors too, surely? “That’s true,” says Jongsma, “but those who after ten years of doing a bachelor degree, master degree and PhD still want to go into academics have demonstrably proven to be a fervent blinkered specialist. And that passion is our simultaneous Achilles heel, as it’s precisely with such a mindset that you’re sooner to be squeezed out.”
Peter Tamas endorses this. In his opinion it’s a question of “ideological exploitation”: ambitious people are easy to exploit. Tamas works at
Wageningen University and specialises in research methodology. His own contract is complex: at Wageningen he has a permanent post as a methodology lecturer, whilst as a researcher he has a fixed-term contract that is due to terminate in two months’ time. “Those sorts of flexible contracts are a complete mess,” says the American.
With fundamental research in particular it’s hard to obtain a fixed-term contract. Which is why many look for a ‘regular’ mainstream career. However, that’s not an option that’s open to Tamas. Laughingly, he says: “Who, pray tell, is holding out for a research methodologist? I like to pose a lot of fundamental questions, which many companies find threatening.”
Flexi contract champion
If anyone’s used to fixed-term contracts, it’s André Linnenbank. Two years ago the Dutch Universities Reform Platform (H.NU) awarded a ‘prize’ to the Amsterdam-based physicist: he was in temporary employment at a Dutch university for a staggering 304 successive months; a record. As a matter of fact he was working for the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam, but he did so via fixed-term contracts at the UvA, the ICIN Cardiology Institute and Utrecht University.
The flexi contracts weren’t a big issue for him: “Legislation was very different at the time, fixed-term contracts were allowed to be successively linked up then. Which is why I never took a hard line, as I knew I would always get a new contract.” But it’s different now: with the new Work and Security Act, an indefinite contract must follow after three fixed-term contracts within two years, or the employment must be terminated.
Linnenbank had to stop in 2014 as he hadn’t netted enough money with his research for a new contract. Nowadays he is a Physics teacher at a secondary school, but doesn’t wish to complain too much about his personal situation. He does, however, have concerns about the detrimental consequences for academics. “Ultimately, young people must leave, sometimes after four or five years, and if they’re lucky after seven or eight years. To become a professor, they have to have secured money for the university, which isn’t necessarily always a given. As such, a great deal of expertise is lost, as people seldom get the twenty or thirty years’ time to become an expert in their area of expertise.”
In the case of some disciplines, a career in academics is indeed the only option after having obtained one’s doctorate, says Professor Andries de Grip, Director of the Maastricht Research Centre for Education and the Labour Market (ROA). “Those who obtain a doctorate in Economics, Sociology or Public Administration, for example, have no trouble entering the enterprise sector or the government. But as a language scholar or historian that’s less the case. Which is something to take into account when obtaining a doctorate.”
De Grip agrees with VAWO chairwoman Jongsma that following a tenure track should offer a reasonable guarantee. “Universities have to become much more transparent. If they formulate clear criteria in advance, they won’t be able to summarily show scholars the door, which is still happening far too often.” Nonetheless, the ROA Director finds a longer appointment of three to six years quite reasonable. “This creates considerable scope for development, and if you do well, you’ll have ample opportunities thereafter.”
De Grip acknowledges that the amount of fixed-term contracts in academics is problematic, but thinks the sixty percent rate gives a distorted picture. He believes it isn’t realistic to take doctoral candidates into account. “Here in the Netherlands doctoral candidates have a paid job, and that in itself is a great privilege. That’s not the case in a lot of other countries.”
But do scholars really have reason to complain? Isn’t a temporary
disposition simply a part of present-day increasing flexibilisation? VAWO chairwoman Jongsma gets to hear these arguments on a regular basis. “But, barring professional football, academics has the most people working on a temporary basis. Even at large companies the average percentage of temporary employees is no higher than fifteen to twenty percent.” The university’s forty percent rate (excluding doctoral candidates) contrasts sharply with that.
According to her, over time the academic world has increasingly adopted an hourglass model. “The upper section comprises professors and university senior lecturers, almost all of whom hold a permanent position. The bottom section holds the nomads. The classic university graduate, in permanent employment and occupied with education and research on a fifty-fifty basis, has meanwhile become an endangered species. It’s bizarre that we go along with this set-up.”
De Grip endorses this. In his opinion academics would benefit from a larger permanent core. “For employers it’s clear: the advantage of a flexi contract is that you can switch; the disadvantage is that there is no or scant investment in knowledge and continuity. Yet, the latter is vital for universities. Now they threaten to become organisations with an ageing top echelon, supplemented with a large, young, variable personnel base. That will be to the detriment of continuity.”