Immediately after the 2017 elections, five seats were occupied by researchers. This year, the academics Tim de Mey (ESPhil), Jacqueline Schenk (ESSB) and Jiska Engelbert (ESHCC) all left the Council, leaving Vladimir Karamychev and Emese von Boné (ESL) the only researchers on the Council. Councillor Ben Bode has a PhD, too, but does not actually hold a research position at RSM. RSM’s Natalija Gersak also left the Council. She is not an academic herself, but in her capacity as Director of Research Development & Support, she does often collaborate with researchers.
‘At present, the Council only voices criticism in exceptional cases’
Why is having only two scientists on the Council a bad thing?
Aleid Barmentlo, who chairs the University Council and is a Philosophy student, says a certain perspective is missing from the Council without academics. “What we want from our council is a good debate. We need the most diverse group possible for that.” Like Barmentlo, Jiska Engelbert believes that academics can speak more freely than support staff, because the latter group’s job description basically consists of implementing the policies decided on by the Executive Board. “Of course, this doesn’t always hold true, but when there are scientists on the Council, you can count on there being a critical mass. At present, the Council only voices criticism in exceptional cases.” Engelbert has noticed that support staff members are more likely to ask ‘how’ than ‘why’. “We are not just another company. We are a university. It is our academic duty and obligation always to ask questions.”
Gersak feels the Council has overemphasised teaching lately. “Students are well represented on the Council. They always attend meetings, and generally have a little more time on their hands than researchers. As a result, we have entered a downward spiral. There aren’t enough researchers on the Council to ensure that research is high on the agenda, so they get frustrated and end up leaving the Council. As a result, there are now even fewer researchers on the Council, meaning the discussions are even less research-oriented.”
Tim de Mey, too, feels that it is bad that important decisions are made on teaching, research and commercial knowledge transfer without much input from scientists. “The support staff on the Council are very useful, but they do often come with a highly specific expertise of one particular faculty or one particular aspect of the university, meaning the Council is a random collection of people who are experts on one particular thing.”
Why is it that there are so few academics on the Council?
According to Gersak, many academics feel that the university’s centralised organisation (including the University Council) does not concern them. “To them, their own faculty is much more important. And in many cases, they don’t know the extent of the power the Council wields in the university.”
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Schenk, Gersak and Engelbert all state that you are not doing yourself any favours by joining the Council. “You are basically self-sacrificing. It always goes at the expense of your own research hours or work. You’re supposed to be given eight hours per week to do the work, but in actual practice, your work duties are not reduced by one day in the week,” says Gersak. For her part, Schenk was surprised to find that some of the hours off she was given in compensation for her work on the Council were subtracted from her research hours. “In the current system, you are assessed by your research output and by your teaching duties, and the University Council is considered a side issue.”
Engelbert adds, “An active role on the Council should be considered a genuine management position. When you’re the chairman of your faculty’s examinations board, you’re a hero, but when you serve on the Council, your CV suddenly has a few lacunae.”
De Mey says that the high workload is the main reason why there are so few academics on the Council. “In the last few years, the quality of the University Council has improved. People have begun to read the files better, and they really dig into the subjects now. It’s harder for academics to do so, as they tend to have less time on their hands. I think that was one of the reasons why so many academics have left.”
‘And so I found myself thinking: ‘I’m kicking up a massive fuss about things that the people I represent aren’t the slightest bit interested in.’
Why did you quit?
Gersak (left in March 2018): “I got very busy in my job. Moreover, I sometimes felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall on the Council. Many councillors only represent their own opinions – which sometimes aren’t that well informed – rather than the opinions of the people they represent. Which is bad, because the University Council wields a considerable amount of power at this university.”
Schenk (left in late 2017): “One of the main reasons for my departure was the fact that I had been appointed Chairman of the PFO (Personnel, Facilities and Organisation) sub-committee of the Council. That committee does not deal with many research-related matters. So I found myself thinking: ‘I’m kicking up a massive fuss about things that do not justify the loss of my research hours.’ Previously, when I was the Chair of the ERS committee (Education, Research and Student Affairs), I had found the loss of research hours justifiable. You can tell that staff members accept unconditionally that they have to do things that have the students’ best interests at heart, but the same is not necessarily true the other way around. Students do not always understand or share our opinions when we ask for greater transparency with regard to the allocation of the EUR Initiatives funds or the Westerdijk funds (a project established by the Ministry of Education to give universities an incentive to appoint more female professors – ES.).”
‘I was teaching additional courses and establishing some teaching-related initiatives. I have to say it was a huge weight off my shoulders.’
Engelbert (left in the summer of 2018): “I left because I was offered the opportunity to do nothing but research for a while, which is what academic careers are all about. But I also left because I felt the Council wasn’t opposing the Executive Board enough. Worse, the councillors began to assume more and more responsibilities, with regard to sustainability and the Centre for Learning and Innovation (student councillors joined sustainability committees and started playing an active role in CLI – ed.). As a result, we became more of a think tank and the Executive Board’s executive branch. And on the few occasions we actually asked tough questions, for instance with regard to the ambitious sustainability plans that were included in the most recent Strategic Plans, but many of which were never implemented, the Executive Board would say, ‘Well, what would you do?’ They are very clever that way. I understand that our students start thinking about questions like that, and it’s actually wonderful that they do. But I do wonder whether helping the Board solve its issues for it is one of the University Council’s core duties.”
In the case of Tim de Mey (who left in late 2017), it was his programme director who told him to quit. “I was no longer able to combine it with my other duties. At the time, I was teaching additional courses and I was establishing some teaching-related initiatives. I have to say it was a huge weight off my shoulders.” De Mey’s workload was not alleviated by the hours he received in compensation for his Council work. “It’s not as if they’ll tell you to drop one of your courses.”
What needs to be done in order to get more academics to join the Council?
Schenk and Engelbert think it is important that being a member of an advisory board be valued more highly. “Include it in the career development model,” they suggest. If Council work is valued properly in a researcher’s performance appraisal, academics will have more of an incentive to join the Council.
Barmentlo would like to see councillors actually given eight hours off per week to deal with advisory board-related issues, like they are supposed to. “In actual practice, they hardly ever get those hours. Some councillors manage to get them, others do not. Not all departments have the same level of appreciation.”
‘The University Council doesn’t always receive the appreciation it deserves’
Barmentlo feels that getting more hours off is not a solution. “Perhaps it will actually create a bigger problem, because managers will then say, ‘What do you mean, you’re joining the University Council? I’m not giving you that many hours off.” De Mey doesn’t necessarily want councillors to receive a greater allowance, either. However, he does want the allowance faculties currently receive for councillors who can’t work full time actually to be used to alleviate the academics’ workload. “Other allowances are generally used the way they’re supposed to be used, but the University Council doesn’t always receive the appreciation it deserves.”
Gersak proposes that the Council ’s composition be changed. In its present incarnation, half of the council (50 per cent) is made up of students, while the remaining 50 per cent are made up of staff. Gersak would like to see the following composition: one third for students, one third for academics, and one third for support staff. “However, if you do that, it’s vital that you convince researchers that it’s important that they join the Council.” She would also like to see councillors trained to understand the importance of the people they represent and of having well-informed opinions.
Engelbert feels that increasing the Council’s visibility would be another way to attract more academics. “But don’t use logos or a newsletter to create that visibility. The Council must demonstrate how it can make a difference. For instance, the vote regarding the new funding allocation model (the University Council voted against it – ES.) was a great moment for joint management. It wasn’t easy, facing an angry Board, but we did get what we wanted.”
Hours off increased in 2015
The Executive Board is in charge of the University Council’s rules and regulations, and regularly performs analyses of the way in which the councillors are facilitated and supported, in association with the councillors themselves. According to the Board, the number of hours off councillors are given doubled in the 2015-2016 academic year (up to eight hours per week), and several faculties now have rules regarding the support, training and hours off given to councillors.
Furthermore, the university has organised more training sessions for members of all sorts of advisory boards. A new analysis is currently being performed. “In addition, the Executive Board is discussing this subject with the deans, so that they, too, will promote, support and facilitate joint management where possible. For instance, for scientists, incorporating serving on an advisory board into the career development policy would be a major step forward,” a spokesperson told us.