‘’Faculteit der Letteren’’ of ‘’leerfabriek met targets’’

Harmoniecomplex, kantine en Letterenfaculteit RUG

‘’Faculty of Arts’’ or ‘’cookie factory’’?

As of next year the faculty of arts is set to reorganize its management structure into five ‘clusters’. The reorganization is the result of the latest round of budget cuts. The plan was conceived without any democratic debate and education and research in the humanities will suffer as a result. The ‘clustering’ is yet another example of the systematic decay of the Dutch humanities, the increasing job insecurity of academics and the democratic deficit of the university of Groningen.

Our faculty of arts has been in dire straits for some years, but now that the new Dutch government has decided to maintain the output-based nature of university funding, the faculty has gone from the frying pan into the fire. This type of funding measures the number of degrees and research publications rather than their quality. The planned management changes will mean that the perverse output-based funding structures will now also take effect within the faculty itself.  In the long term this will mean that vulnerable disciplines will receive even less structural funding, an increase of work pressure and less teaching staff.
Developments that may financially revitalize the faculty on the short term, but won’t save it in the long run.

The faculty management, like their colleagues elsewhere, has to make do with less funding. The responsibility for what managers call ‘the realization of a more sustainable education programme’ is pushed onto the new cluster managers. A clever move, because in the case of further cuts it will be the teaching staff and cluster management who will bear the weight. The change is especially bitter when one remembers how faculty management has been claiming that no further cuts to education or staff would be made. The process serves as a call-back to 2012, when a valuable number of language programmes were cut and much staff was fired. The question today is: what exactly will happen as of January 2018, and what will be the specific issues? Let’s take a closer look.

The ‘clustering’ of the arts

The focus on financial efficiency has been hurtful to higher education for some years and especially the arts and humanities have suffered. It is a trend that goes back as far as the eighties, when public transport and health care were also privatized. The new cuts, being carried out under the name of ‘clustering’ are exemplary for this neoliberal zeitgeist.

The central management of our Alma Mater ordered the faculty to copy the governments’ funding model for its faculty budget. This means, as said above, funding on the basis of quantitative output: graduation percentages, numbers of attained ECTS etc. The faculty management has held it back for some time, but the financial deficits are unyielding. Luckily enough, the faculty management, in collaboration with the central management, has found a great solution that will throw off those duped by the planned reorganization. First off, the management has done its best to avoid informing the community of our faculty. Second, they make sure to leave out the words ‘cuts’ and only use ‘reorganization’. Third, by creating the new layer of management clusters they make the staff itself responsibility for seeing the cuts through.  Of course, everyone is well aware that ‘reorganization’ is a management euphemism for financial sanitation, that clustering is an empty phrase that will only increase work pressure and finally that all this is exemplary for the amazing manager’s language that fools us every time.

Because of all that is happening, the policy motto ‘towards a sustainable and compact faculty’, as repeated by managers since 2012, is a facade. ‘Sustainable’ means financially efficient, ‘compact’ means bare-bones. A small light in the darkness is that the managers seem to have realized that they have inadequate experience on the work floor itself to take important decisions. In their honesty they write: “The faculty board experiences that it is to distant from the education and teachers to take well-founded decisions on education”.

The problems of budget cuts

The shape the managerial clustering takes next calendar year gives rise to many issues. First, the plan was set in motion without hearing the voice of the staff and students in question. Managers have created a blueprint without well-argued methodological or financial backing. In april, teachers wrote an elaborate letter to the board, explaining their concerns about the faults of the reorganization plans. As always, their questions were listened to without any conviction on the part of the management.

Prior to the presentation of the clustering plans, the managers formed three committees to advise them. The formation of the committees was shady and not transparant, but managers claim that the meetings resulted in ‘solid and well-argued advice’. Fact remains however, that staff and students were never publicly heard. Until this day, the advice the committees gave is not available to public scrutiny. Why have the managers never asked the academic community of our faculty for its ideas? Why has there never been a proper debate on the plans? Why did the faculty not choose a more deliberative approach? The whole process is testament to the democratic deficit of our university in general and the faculty of arts in particular.

An important part of the plan that will be implemented in January is the so-called cluster budget. These funds consist of a structural and a variable part. The variable part will be made dependent on the attained ECTS and degrees by students. It is not as bad as it could be: every ECTS counts and not just those attained ‘nominally’, i.e. within the planned study-period. The structural funding of clusters is based on earlier budget. This means that all the perverse financial incentives that make quantity more important than quality are maintained. This output-based funding is one of the core issues of Dutch universities today. The government imposed it on our central managers, and now the faculty managers impose it on the faculty itself as well. These measures will result in less and less funding for teachers. One difference that has to be emphasized again and again: it will be the cluster managers who have to see future cuts through, with them taking the blame and the backlash. The real culprits remain safe.

In the scenario where a programme receives fewer students in a given year, funding will go down. This means it will become attractive for the cluster managers to get rid of programs that are expensive, for example because they have small numbers of students or many teachers. By giving the clusters this responsibility, the main faculty board finds itself in the position of the angry parent who, with a raised finger, asks the child in the toy store: “do you think the money grows on trees?!”

Future budget cuts are not a worst case scenario. When we take a look at the budget of the university from 2016, we can see our predictions confirmed. Central management is eager to “raise student numbers, increase bachelor to master through-put, encourage timely graduations and reduce the number of programmes”. Additionally, rector magnificus Elmar Sterken has emphasized that he wants to increase the number of ‘funded’ (i.e. profitable) students. “aggressive marketing” is his beloved solution. These are all measures aimed at finances, none of which are sustainable. It isn’t even clear if they are really that financially feasible as managers hope they are.

‘Flexibilisation’ is a joke

The faculty board wants the new cluster management to decide on the degree of ‘flexibility’ staff contracts have. This means increased job insecurity for teachers and academics. Especially when quantitative output, of ECTS, degrees and publications, is key for their funding. Further reductions in staff and increased replacement of teachers by student-assistants and PhD-students will only be a matter of time.

As far as education goes, there is obviously a lot that can go wrong. Another problem is that the ‘flexibility’ will drive even more researchers to the national funding institutes of NWO and KNAW. Requests for these types of funding are very insecure and often not successful. All of it is grant-based, and therefore temporary. The job insecurity itself is only one part of the problem: the increased mental health issues among academics is a well-known problem. By maintaining these competition-based funding structures, the university is responsible for a lot of the mental stress academics experience.

When we look at flexible contracts and grants from a budget perspective, it turns out it isn’t even always more profitable for the management. Professor of Dutch Language Geert Buelens (University of Utrecht) said, already in 2005, “less teachers have to teach more in less time and with less funding in order to increase graduation percentages”. It describes the core of the cuts at our faculty and the way staff is forced to bear the weight. In order to criticize this development, Prof Hans Radder (Free university Amsterdam), founder of the platform for the reform of Dutch universities (HNU), organized a prize question in 2014: “What academic has had a temporary job for the longest in the Netherlands?”. The term managers use, “flexible peel” is telling: a peel can be thrown away.

The problem of output-based funding

The board of the faculty of arts employs the argument that the faculties of philosophy and theology already use a system of output-based evaluations to run their departments, where one budget is used for multiple programmes as in the cluster plans. The result is that these faculties are financially healthy, our board argues. It is telling for the shallow way managers understand the core business of an academic community: education and research. After all, haven’t students and staff at the faculty of philosophy been very vocal about the horrible results of its financial policy? Over the course of the past 5 years, the diversity in its education and research has decreased dramatically. Last spring a group of philosophy students organized a whole symposium on the issue, with almost a hundred people attending, which is many for a small faculty. Additionally, the faculty of philosophy’s financial health is partially thanks to NWO-prize grants received by some of its staff, funding that is obviously not recurring or sustainable.

I cannot emphasize enough how disastrous output-based funding will be for the faculty of arts. We have reached a scenario where teachers might find themselves in a situation where they have to artificially keep graduation percentages high. Maintaining quality and failing students could, in some situations, mean decreased funding. With these kind of quantitative criteria, quality is cannot be maintained: all that counts is numbers of students graduating, numbers of ECTS attained. The rushed Anglicization that many courses have been subject too is also a consequence of this type of management: international students are attracted for their tuition rather than for their academic or cultural contribution.  In similar policies in other Dutch universities, managers have sometimes gone so far as to include the graduation percentages in the official budget. Another problem of output-based funding is that it is a zero-sum game. The central management won’t increase funding once the budget is back into the black. The only adjustment made to the budgets of the new cluster management is a yearly review where failure to ‘perform’ can lead to even more cuts.

By running the faculty of arts by measuring output and installing the new cluster managers, it is teaching staff that has to pick up the bill.  In a university where millions are spent on prestige projects to develop the UG-’brand’, learning communities and marketing campaigns, the academic community of the faculty of arts has to keep fighting for the funding it deserves. We need to put a stop to funding policies that emphasize quantity over quality. A different university is no pipedream: who takes a look at the budget of central management will see that the money is definitely there. Unfortunately the managers and their six-digit salaries think they know better where to spend it.

Conclusions

In this article I have attempted to showcase the problems that the managerial reorganization will give rise to. Output-based funding and ‘flexibilisation’ should not be welcome at our faculty. There has never been a real democratic debate on these so-called solutions and transparency is nowhere to be found. Students and teachers have hardly been informed about the plans. At DAG, we want an allocation of funds that offers protection to vulnerable disciplines, those that cannot fill lecture rooms with hundreds of students or rake in millions at national funding institutions. One step in the right direction would be to increase the structural part of faculty funding, but that’s not something the current central management would ever do, obsessed with efficiency as they are. Similarly, there is no enthusiasm among faculty management to make fundamental changes either. The faculty management understands its role as employees following the orders of the employer, rather than academics with a social responsibility. With every round of budget cuts, the faculty of arts is transformed into something more akin to a cookie factory than a university. The ideals a university should uphold and the realities of management are miles apart. Ultimately, it is maybe only the minister of education who could enforce better funding, and that is not something we should be hopeful about.

Written by: Bart Hekkema

 



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