Every student gets frustrated sometimes when a teacher takes a long time to grade a paper or an exam. The problem is not laziness, rather it is the enormous workload that they experience. The UG should be tackling the structural causes of these issues, but instead it offers Zumba lessons.
By Marit de Jong and Willem Noordink
“Oh come on!, she still hasn’t graded our exams”, Mark whispers quietly. “That’s right, not like that has never happened before with her”, Juliet says. The teacher, Emma, stands stammering in front of their classroom trying to put on her headset. She looks like a deer in headlights, having failed to grade their exams once again. At the same time, the students are anxious to get their grades, for some it’s even the grade that determines if they fail or pass. The teacher, Emma, starts the class without even mentioning it, to the anger and frustration of her students.
Earlier that day, Emma jumped on her bike and left for the faculty at which she works. It’s a busy day for her: class in the morning, a reading group after, some faculty business and exams that need grading. Meanwhile the deadline for her research buzzes in her head. She speeds towards the classroom, where the first students have already taken their seats. She puts her USB-stick in the computer and tries to put on the headset, so the people in the back can hear her too. Her headset… her head gets heavy and she has to keep herself upright using the doorway. The crowd and its sheer amount of students overwhelm her. This has been happening a lot more lately, which is why she takes an hour of Zumba every week. They said it’s supposed to make things better.
The workload at Dutch universities
If you thought this story sounded exaggerated, you would be mistaken. At times there seems to be a big difference between the point of view of a teacher and a student. When it comes to exams and their education, students are often reliant on their teachers. At the same time, the average workload of teachers keeps getting bigger, something the students often can’t sympathize with.
Research done by two separate Dutch trade unions (FNV and VAWO), in which 2500 university employees were interviewed, tells us that 7 out of 10 of them claim to experience a workload that is too high or extremely high. The same research also states that 60 percent of people asked had experienced physical problems due to the workload being too high, It’s even worse when 90 percent of these people confessed that they kept working under these conditions.
The UG tackles the problem with Zumba
This seems to be a sizable problem, which should be addressed at the core of the issue. The university apparently thinks otherwise, if we look at their solution. They’re offering employees, through the so-called BALANS-programme, activities like Zumba, salsa and mindfulness. This effectively states that employees should take action themselves, if they want to ‘work healthy and fit”, as the UG-site tells us. These initiatives show that the UG is aware of the issues surrounding their employees, but choose to tackle these heavy issues through individual and voluntary initiatives. Or, how they put it,:” This is how the UG shows those employees who might not live as healthy, how a little effort for their health can go a long way”.
The absurdity of this situation lies in the fact that these programs indicate that they know there are big and structural problems with the well-being of their employees. At the same time, the university elects to address these issues through non-solutions. There is a problem at Dutch universities: a workload that is too high, which has all sorts of negative consequences. Answers are presented in the form of health classes, like Zumba, yoga, mindfulness and salsa. This does address a couple of symptoms, but the core issues remain.
Real issues: flexibilization and pressure to publish
Then what are the real issues? The FNV, concluding their aforementioned research, names a couple of main reasons for the workload being too high. Among other reasons, the increase in the amount of students is pinpointed. Statistics from the department of education tell us that the average number of university personnel only grew by 14 percent, while there was a huge increase in the amount of students. This exposes the weaknesses of a proactive university policy; you could at least call it unwise to cater to students from all around the world, while the necessary funds simply aren’t there to support it.
hankfully, our corporate culture has a solution for everything. To manage the large number of students, universities have started to use flexible contracts. All around the world universities have been using these, in order to make it easy for researchers to move between different universities. There are also a lot of universities that experience massive fluctuations in their student numbers. Only working with permanent positions would be impossible in these situations.
However, when flexibilization and these temporary contracts become the go-to methods, what seems to be the case at the UG, a problem comes to light. The financial insecurity along with the fear of no contract renewal is taking its toll. Research from the Dutch scientific union shows that 70 percent of all PhD’s move away from research, oftentimes out of sheer necessity. Rolf van Wegberg, chairman of the Dutch association for PHD’s (PNN), describes them as ‘disposable researchers”.
It gets worse when you look at the ‘experiment’ with ‘scholarship-PHD’s’ the UG is doing at the moment. Instead of a salary, they receive a scholarship in exchange for their labor, still remaining a student while doing a full-time job. The pay, 1700 a month, is a decent starting salary, but that’s a fixed amount. They have no right to build up their pension or a holiday entitlement.
Another reason for the massive workload is the pressure to publicish. At universities like the UG there is a certain quantitative policy, known as the ‘performance agreements’. In June 2016 a headline in the newspaper Trouw told us that “ researchers collapse under the pressure to publish”. In the article we read that almost a quarter of researchers asked, had experienced symptoms of a burn-out. This pressure to publish isn’t just harmful to researchers, but it also causes quantity to be valued higher than quality, while a high workload can cause errors in research or even fraud. It makes it that we do not remember that science is about more than just publishing. It makes us forget what Robbert Dijkgraaf did as a teacher on a television class, it makes us forget that the most influential publication Dick Swaab ever did was in the form of a pop-science book. It makes us forget that history’s famous philosophers could not have been academics in this day and age, simply because they were too busy writing long books.
The problem fits into the broader analysis that DAG has made: teachers are treated like machines and the university as a degree factory. By democatizing the university, we can give teachers and researchers more autonomy and substantial self-determination.
Now, back to Emma, her class worked out fine. Her daily tasks have been completed , which leaves her some time in the afternoongrade some exams.. After dinner she spend some more time on it, but the job turned out to be too big to finish at once. And there’s still that research deadline. At any rate she canceled zumba class for today, so she could relax a little.