Why clustering means the end of your degree

Harmoniecomplex, kantine en Letterenfaculteit RUG

Last month, over sixty employees affiliated with the Faculty of Arts protested against the plans proposed by the faculty board to ‘cluster’ the various departments. And rightly so, because when the fundamental logic behind the reorganisation is analysed, there is only one logical conclusion: the noose around the neck of the Faculty of Arts tightens once more.

By Bart Hekkema

The university board wants to make the University of Groningen (UG) fully sustainable by 2030. This sustainable university may very well prove to be a university without an Faculty of Arts, which is likely to have disappeared due to a lack of funding and excessive clustering,” says Antoon de Baets, professor by special appointment in History, Ethics and Human Rights in the University Newspaper (UK).

There are reasonable grounds for these concerns. At the heart of the reorganisational plan lies  the reduction of the various existing departmental boards to five ‘cluster boards’. It is presented as a measure to increase ‘flexibilisation’ and efficiency, instead, it may well be the latest in a series of decisions leading to a larger democratic deficit, less subsidiarity and more bureaucratization in the Faculty of Arts.

No financial substantiation

Initially, the faculty board presented the clustering plans as an austerity measure. This caused uproar among the Faculty of Arts lecturers, particularly because the plans were not backed up by any financial substantiation. Jan de Jeu, Vice President of the Board of the University, tried to placate staff and students with the unctuous words: “The financial situation is not critical at the moment and clustering is only a part of the rescue plan”.

This is a rather transparent attempt at forestalling criticism. Afterwards, De Jeu refused to answer questions asked by the Personnel Faction of the University Council. This example confirms once again that the board members of this alleged ‘democratic’ university do not take sufficient account of input and questions raised by the academic community that they should be representing.

‘Flexibilatisation’ is nonsense

The fact that the rhetoric of the faculty board now relies on the word ‘flexibilisation’ rather than ‘austerity’ raises an important question: ‘Does the reform truly make the Faculty of Arts more flexible?’

The answer is no. It merely creates an extra layer of management and prepares Arts for further austerity measures. The faculty budget remains unchanged, while at the same time extra job positions are created to facilitate the bureaucratic process. In short, the reform happens at the expense of research staff. The clustering effectuates the de-democratisation of the university and needlessly moves the faculty towards more one-size-fits-all’, or ‘broad- degree programmes.

Lack of support

There is hardly any support for the upcoming clustering, which is enforced by management on the faculty employees. In a letter addressed to the faculty board, employees wrote that the plans to cluster are “unsubstantiated, cause work-related stress, increase bureaucracy, and are implemented too quickly”. The faculty board presented a ready-made plan without consulting the Arts staff from the start onwards. It is only in the final stages of decision-making where students and employees get to be involved, where they can only influence the smaller details in a bigger plan.

Two professors expressed their doubts about the reform in the article published by the University Newspaper.  They argue that the new layer of management will lead to more bureaucracy and increase distances between the boards and the employees. Professor Koole stated that he “expects the individual programmes to keep some sort of board to manage their programme, effectively creating an additional, intermediary board”.

Broad-based bachelor programmes

By creating catch-all bachelor degrees such as European Languages and Cultures, the faculty board took a step on the slippery slope of step-by-step budget cuts. During the 2013 reorganisations, dozens of jobs disappeared and the smaller language degrees were abolished. The Facebook group ‘Danish, Norse, Finnish and Hungarian should stay in Groningen’ still shows remnants of the resistance against this lamentable decision.

Merging the language studies was not just an austerity measure. It was destruction of cultural capital. In 2017, however, the faculty is still struggling with an ‘operating deficit’ and the same management terminology keeps echoing through the Weber hall of the Harmony Building: resulting in endless bureaucracy and an ever dwindling variety of studies.

The same thing is bound to happen because of the clustering. In the following years, separate study programs will merge and share courses, sacrificing depth for convenience. This spells ill for the autonomy of these degree programmes as it will raise the question whether they shouldn’t ‘simply’ be merged in full. End result? In a few years your degree programme, or its qualitative merit, will have disappeared.

Austerity at the Arts Faculty

The question is, then, whether the faculty board takes note of these issues. It seems even this body has completely adopted the corporate mentality pervasive in university policy. “I am part of this system now so I have to cooperate. Whether I agree with it or not is something completely different. My personal opinion is not relevant”, faculty dean Gerry Wakker said in 2013, responding to the previous reorganisation that was also implemented top-down. But the faculty board, by its very nature, ought to be the party to speak out against this system.

Unfortunately, this is not a problem unique to the University of Groningen. In the entire country, the Faculties of Arts are in a precarious position. Coming from the shallow, economist perspective that is ubiquitous in university policymaking, it seems that the Faculty of Arts does not have any added value. Indeed, the value of the humanities cannot be expressed in financial terms, but it certainly can be expressed in social relevance. Our society will have to accept that the arts are a financial expense. Their social relevance may not be measurable, but it is real. When technological rationale dictates the decisions of those in in charge, the future of the Faculty of Arts doesn’t seem very bright. Money does not flow where it is needed, but where the prospective returns are highest.

Conclusion

Clustering could never serve the the ideal of a democratic University of Groningen. It would sooner lead to the Faculty of Arts turning into a “battlefield”, quoting De Baets once again. It’s hard to tell what the Faculty of Arts will be like in September, but clustering will not solve the operating deficit. A fundamental change of mentality is what is needed within the University of Groningen.

The faculty board should admit it: clustering is an austerity measure. As students, we must join together in opposition of the reforms,and make sure they are called off. We must not allow ourselves to be led like lambs to the slaughter.

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