For Bekkers, the interview also means going back to the campus. Since 20 November he has not been in his office. Naturally, deans have also been asked to work from home, but for Bekkers the past weeks were especially stressful personally.

First of all, how are you doing?

“A few weeks ago my father died from corona. I then suffered a corona infection myself, so it was a very difficult period. But talking about the past four years, I feel it was really an interesting time. In particular, because of several challenges that the faculty faced.”

What were those challenges?

“Formulating a strategy for the faculty was an important step. It was actually the first time that this was done at ESSB. We wanted to turn our gaze more outwards, while at the same time shaping the collaboration between all the different parties within the faculty.”

Important goals from the strategic plan 2019-2022 included the development of multidisciplinary research, new master programmes, improved personnel policy and investing in education. How far along is the faculty with achieving these goals?

“The strategy was actually a broad package. First, establishing four pillars for multidisciplinary education and research. For each of the four pillars we recruited new professors and together they have successfully created a number of research programmes and seven new master programmes.”

The goals of the Meeting the future society strategy 2019-2022:

  • Four pillars for multidisciplinary research: Global Social Challenges, Vital Cities & Citizens, Behavioural Change and Organisational Dynamics in a digital society.
  • New professors, postdocs, and assistant professors for each pillar for that multidisciplinary research
  • Expanding the master’s degree portfolio
  • Developing Life long learning modules for professionals in the new ESSB academy
  • Creating more career opportunities for academic staff
  • Investing the money from the abolition of the basic student grant in education

One of the action points in the strategy was the development of a new personnel policy. That led to a pilot for the entire university concerning recognition and rewards1. Can you briefly explain what that means for ESSB?

“We created various ‘profiles’ for the career paths for researchers. This means that an assistant professor with six years of experience can choose a profile which places more emphasis on education, management, impact or research. After a few years, you can switch. That process has now been in place for a year and a half. But we are not yet finished: we need to take another step towards a more team-oriented faculty.”

What does that involve?

“We noted that in the recognition and rewards context, team science is becoming increasingly important. A scientist can choose a profile they feel passionate about or are good in, for example education, research, societal impact or management. At the same time, all of the tasks must still be accomplished within a team, so it is an issue that must be addressed at the group level.”

Suppose you choose a profile with less research, does that have any consequences for your next career step? Because you would have fewer publications and thus fewer chances in faculties or universities that pay attention to those numbers.

“That’s true, but the aim of Recognition and rewards in the broad sense is that your career does not depend entirely on research. We are leaving behind the culture in which research performance is decisive for your career. There are people employed in this organisation who are talented in very different areas than research, which are very valuable.”

But has this point been considered? How can someone with fewer publications still progress in their career?

“First of all, if you choose a profile, it does not mean that you are stuck there for life. An educational profile could be considered by others as something that is less valuable, so we have clearly emphasised: in this faculty you can progress from assistant professor to associate professor with an education, management or societal impact profile.”

What struck me is that there are profiles that do not focus on impact. But is that possible, not focussing on that at all?

“That is the decision you have to weigh up in a team. Given your team’s objectives, you can say: this person is more focussed on education, or on writing publications and acquiring subsidies. That is why the group level of the team is so important.”

Broadening the criteria for assessing scientists has of course been a topic of discussion for a long time, and this is a concrete plan to accomplish it. Nevertheless, I often hear from scientists that their impression is that research is still valued the most. To what extent will you succeed in breaking through that barrier?

“Well, I believe that the change has now been set in motion but will take time. It is really a cultural change process.”

One of the goals of Recognition and rewards is to make more people feel at home in science. Rather than all the same elderly men. Three years ago, 29 per cent of the professors at the ESSB were women. How is the situation now?

“I think that in the past four years we have taken a real step in the area of appointing female professors. The actual percentage has not yet been calculated, but in 2020 it was 42 per cent. Since then, two more female professors have been appointed.

“In addition, I want the staff of this faculty to reflect, how do you say it, the multicultural culture of the city and society. People who have a different cultural background. I think there is more work to be done there.”

How is the faculty doing something about that?

“We are trying to pay close attention to this when recruiting and selecting lecturers. But the number of candidates who apply in recruitment procedures is often disappointing, so I think we shall have to search in another, more targeted way. We need to spot talented young people earlier on and support them better.”

Another goal of Recognition and rewards is lowering the work pressure. Work pressure has always been a problem, and then corona was added on top. How are your people doing?

“That is a problem that presented itself repeatedly in the past four years. And with corona, people were sitting at home with children or a sick partner who needed help. We have now had the third or fourth lockdown, so the problems keep piling up.

“The natural reaction is: bring in more people. But I do not have an endless supply of money unfortunately, and the financing provided for each student keeps going down. Psychology and Management of International Social Challenges have grown enormously in recent years, but the money doesn’t arrive until a few years later. So we have to cope as best we can. I think that working in teams can make an important contribution to the solution, as people can do what they are good at and enjoy, which increases their pleasure in work and lowers the pressure.

“You could also look at how our education is organised. This faculty became big based on small-scale teaching, but we are running up against the limits of what can be afforded and organised. Problem-Based Learning is a model that was introduced around 30 years ago, so you can imagine it needs modernising, with the new technologies and incorporating what the students enjoy. For example, we have worked for a long time with groups of 12 students. That varies from programme to programme, sometimes they now have 20. The goal is 16-20 students. You can also lower the work pressure by, for example, giving other kinds of assignments, ones that give the students more autonomy.”

The intention of the HOKA funds2 was to invest in smaller-scale, qualitatively better education. How does that relate to increasing the size of the groups? Are you not running the risk that education will become impoverished if the approach is to lower the work pressure?

“That is certainly not our intention. It is naturally a challenge to ensure that education remains attractive and challenging for both lecturers and students. But the way we have been doing that in the past could be modernised. The seven-step plan, for example, one of the foundation stones of problem-oriented education, needs innovating.”

I’ve heard that the ESSB will replace tutors (who have at least a master diploma) by students in the future, so students will be supervised by other students in the tutorials from now on.

“I have not been informed of this, it is definitely not a faculty policy in any case. It is true that the groups are getting larger and so we need fewer tutors, though we try to employ more assistant professors for this task.”

Can you name another example showing that HOKA has improved education?

“The biggest HOKA project so far is Tutoring 2.0, in which we expanded and extended the positions of tutors to make room for more training, peer-review and mutual agreement on checking. Tutors can obtain a Basic University Teaching Qualification in their third and fourth years. In addition, we were able to take on educationalists in a Learning & Innovation team. They now work together with lecturers on a range of projects like developing new courses and redesigning parts of a study programme that may, for example, be under pressure from greater student numbers.”

You are about to start your second term. What do you want to achieve with this faculty in the coming four years?

“We shall start by developing a new strategy, I want to do that in the same way as last time, with roundtable sessions with our personnel. In the coming period there is less financial leeway than in the last four years, when we had a rather large reserve that we had to spend down. Important developments are lifelong learning and online education. For example, we want to develop e-masters, master programmes that can be offered entirely online. We need to see what that means for our range of study programmes. In addition, the collaboration with other institutions will become increasingly important, like that with TU Delft and Erasmus MC. What is most important? That in the coming four years the faculty offers a pleasant working environment that allows everyone to develop themselves.”

  1. A national project to assess more broadly the work of scientists and place less emphasis on publications. ↩︎
  2. HOKA stands for Higher Education Quality Agreements and concerns the money that was released after the student grants were abolished. The universities were meant to use that money to improve the education of Dutch students ↩︎