“A researcher who leaves the academic world with a heavy heart because he doesn’t feel safe. A student who doesn’t dare to ask questions during a lecture because of the behaviour of the lecturer. These are examples that really distress me”, Minister Dijkgraaf writes in a letter to parliament on social safety.
Hard work will be needed to improve social safety in higher education and in the academic community, the Minister expects. The problems include inequality of power, competition and sexism.
Duty of care, reporting requirement
There is plenty that the institutions have to do themselves, but Dijkgraaf is prepared to amend laws and rules. For example, he wants to enshrine the duty of care for social safety in the Higher Education and Research Act. This would make it easier to hold institutions accountable.
If it is up to Dijkgraaf, the rules will also be stricter. This means the board would have to call in the Inspectorate of Education whenever there is a suspicion of sexual violence or sexual harassment against a student by a member of staff. Currently, the reporting requirement applies only if the student is a minor. The theory was that minors need more protection. “But in education a relationship of dependency always exists, whether or not the student is a minor”, says Dijkgraaf. “That’s the reason for extending the rules to all students, regardless of age.”
And it will no longer be possible to impose a duty of silence. “Unfortunately, it sometimes happens that agreements are made that force victims not to disclose incidents”, Dijkgraaf asserts. “I consider that particularly undesirable.” He wants to make sure it no longer occurs.
Dijkgraaf puts the expectations in perspective. Creating a safe environment in higher education? “That isn’t easy, given the special nature of education and academia”, he says. “These centre on learning, development and open debate, and there are always relationships of dependency.”
But he is going to try to get higher education to make changes. A budget for research, monitoring and cultural change had already been announced: 4 million euros per year until 2031.
And there will be an extra 4 million (so 16 million euros in total) in the next four years for a programme that aims to bring about change in the structure and culture of the institutions. For students and staff members alike.
Is a troublesome or critical lecturer allowed to be dismissed? One of the aims of the programme is to make “the position of staff in relation to free speech and academic freedom” a topic for discussion. Dijkgraaf is also considering training courses for managers and levelling off the hierarchical structures.
Procedures also need to be improved. “Complaints do not always lead to a solution”, Dijkgraaf says. “So problems are not always reported.” In his opinion, structural problems are regularly dismissed as ‘incidents’.
So he wants to investigate whether there needs to be an independent reporting centre to which students and staff can turn for support and advice.