Independent journalism about VU Amsterdam | Since 1953
12 April 2024

Campus
& Culture

‘If you can’t foster internal debate at a university, where can you?’

Employee participation is going in the wrong direction, university councils warn. Lack of appreciation and facilities is deterring researchers – especially young ones – from taking part. And what’s more, they are afraid that their career could be impacted.

The employee participation bodies have to discuss virtually everything with university administrators, faculties and study programmes. In a letter to the House of Representatives, outgoing minister Ingrid van Engelshoven wrote that “by and large” things are going well with employee participation. Her statement relies on research by the consulting firm Berenschot.

But that’s wrong, says Rien Wijnhoven, chair of LOVUM, the national association of university participation councils. He is also the independent chair of the university council in Tilburg.

The turnout at elections has been declining for years and is sometimes dramatically low, and programme committees and faculty councils often have little choice: barely enough candidates can be found. And those in office generally have too little time.

What do you think the problem is with employee participation?
“There have been worrying developments in recent years. The politicians are handing an increasing number of tasks to the participation bodies. We have to discuss enormous sums of money, we have to monitor quality agreements, we have to oversee staff welfare… The participation bodies are having an increasingly tough time meeting the high expectations.”

Why is it getting harder?
“The workload of researchers has increased enormously, as has the study load of students. They get insufficient remuneration for their time on the participation council and are sometimes discouraged from taking part altogether. Things sometimes go really badly, especially at the faculty and programme level, with councils that do not have the full number of members, lack of support and documents that arrive too late. The alarm needs to be sounded.”

Why would you discourage someone from joining employee participation?
“Older researchers sometimes say to ambitious young colleagues, ‘don’t do it, it’s bad for your career’. Those young researchers are on temporary contracts and grumbling is not appreciated, so why should they stick their neck out by joining the participation bodies? The workload among professors is high as well, so they very rarely take part. The result is an overrepresentation of support staff and employees who are nearing retirement. There is nothing wrong with those employees, but it makes the councils rather one-sided.”

So what needs to happen?
“The work for participation bodies ought to be part of ‘recognition and reward’. That’s the policy through which the Dutch universities aim to reward work activities other than scientific research, such as teaching and other forms of disseminating knowledge. Employee participation is included in that too. If all goes well, members of participation bodies will then get more support and facilities.”

The minister says that things are going well, by and large.
“If things are going well at one university but badly at another, you cannot say that everything is okay on average. What does that actually tell us? It says in the Berenschot report that ‘the majority’ takes a certain view, and that majority is 58 percent. The variation says a lot more than ‘the average’ or ‘the majority’. Participation bodies must be properly facilitated everywhere.”

You might also reason that if the participation council cannot command its own facilities, what can we actually expect of it?
“We cannot change this unwelcome trend on our own. That’s why we are calling on politicians, the minister and our own administrators.”

Why don’t you say, ‘we’re not going to vote for anything until this is settled’?
“It doesn’t make much sense to put a spanner in the works. Ultimately, we all have the same interest at heart: a university that functions well, where people are happy with what they are doing. That is different from regular politics, where people are sometimes diametrically opposed.”

So how do we know if there’s really a problem?
“Everyone can see that things are not heading in the right direction. The turnout at elections is often dramatically low. The councils have so much to do and they already have too little time to do it in, let alone putting effort into raising their profile on campus, keeping in contact with the people they represent and building a broader orientation, as Berenschot advises.”

Does good employee participation really depend on a little more or less remuneration?
“It probably doesn’t matter a lot to the people who are doing the job right now; they knew what they were getting themselves into. But there are interesting groups of employees who are not currently standing for election. That’s a sheer waste for the institution as a whole. We want to avoid having to say in five or ten years’ time, ‘let’s just stop, it no longer means anything’. Surely that can’t be right? If you can’t foster internal debate at a university, where can you?”

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