In a former grain silo in Rotterdam’s Maashaven, the mood on the stage was almost euphoric last Friday. Around two hundred academics made their way to this industrial complex to discuss the new system of evaluation for university academic staff. The talk was of a ‘historic moment’, and even ‘a revolution’.
And after over two years, last week there emerged a plan that has the support of the universities, university medical centres, the KNAW science association and funding providers the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and ZonMW. When assessing grant applications and career advancement, there will be less emphasis on ‘ticking boxes’ relating to research performance (number of publications, citations, etc.) and the focus will be shifted to include providing good teaching and education, research impact, leadership and patient care.
No more counting beans
At the conference, it turned out that this new beginning also raises some new questions. Academics wanted to know what all these changes will mean exactly. Rik Van de Walle, the rector of the University of Ghent, was invited to explain how he approaches it.
He is a product of the old model, where only the numbers were important. ‘How many publications you have, how many PhD students, how much budget you have available. But we didn’t choose to become scientists to fill in forms and count beans.’
One year ago, he introduced a new career model, which he says rewards everyone who performs at the right level. His teaching staff are assessed less often than before – once every five years. ‘That takes away the fierce competition, which also reduces stress.’
Every teacher is assigned his or her own assessment committee, which provides individual feedback. ‘They can discuss their ambitions without this always being linked to specific numbers or targets.’ That means that agreements regarding numbers of publications are no longer necessary. Van de Walle does not believe that everyone can excel at everything. So it is important to focus on employees’ specific talents. ‘Staff are given the freedom to do what they are really good at.’
And that includes teaching and education. But how do you evaluate that? The Ghent model has four pillars. Teaching staff are assessed on their vision, the extent to which they encourage ‘active learning’, their contribution to the development of the curriculum and student assessments of their teaching.
There is also a ‘fast track’ for those staff who benefit from competition and who are eager to take the next step in their career in less than five years. Around ten to fifteen of Ghent’s five hundred employees have the chance to take part in this fast track.
The fact that those attending the conference were very interested in the system used by the University of Ghent was obvious from the number of hands that went up in the air after the rector had finished speaking. ‘Doesn’t it sound too good to be true?’ says someone in the room. How can you fund all those promotions to higher paid jobs?
‘We identified our priority,’ replies Van de Walle. ‘This change cannot be made without financial consequences. But they are actually quite limited.’
The rector cannot say at this stage whether the new system will reduce stress levels. But he does acknowledge that some employees are unclear about this complex new model. When you are assessed on a narrow set of criteria, that is rather limiting but at least you know where you stand.
But is this new method not overly subjective? This key question is also discussed during the group sessions. Are you not just rewarding those people who can tell a good story and sell themselves? And is this narrative suitable across all disciplines?
If scientists are assessed on different areas, they also need to be given the time and space to work on those. For example, the social impact of research is important, and yet currently you don’t get any hours to work on that, states one participant. So in effect, that needs to be done in your spare time, and that surely can’t be right.
In order to prevent the Netherlands from being the only country to implement changes, universities and providers of scientific funding are trying to persuade the rest of Europe to follow suit. If they fail to do so, Dutch academics run the risk that they will be out of the running at the international level, because different assessment criteria are applied.
The Minister of Education, Culture and Science, Ingrid Van Engelshoven, who expressed her support for the plan at the end of the conference, wants to help them to do this. She intends to promote these plans and ambitions actively abroad.