Academics sound the alarm: towards a normal academic standard
On 6 April 2021 academics across the Netherlands protested against on-going austerity in higher education. Leiden University lecturers explain why.
On Tuesday 6 April 2021, a group of protesters wearing red berets, some in professor gowns, gathered at the Hofvijver in the Hague. Under the distressing sound of an alarm, a group of protesters entered the water, among them PhD fellow Tim de Zeeuw, former lecturer at International Studies and member of the University Council. “I entered the Hofvijver because it is important that we push harder for serious reform of the current system,” says Tim. “I have experienced academic life as both student and staff in the past 13 years and it is clearly not sustainable. There is not enough time to fully develop our research and education leading to significant physical and psychological stress and frustration. This is why I joined the university council and this is why I went in to the Hofvijver. If this leads to some discomfort, and in this case wet, cold and smelly clothes, so be it.”
Normaal Academisch Peil (NAP) was organized by a broad coalition of the national action group WOinActie, the unions AOb and FNV, the fourteen Dutch universities as well as various academic interest groups such as the PhD network and the Royal Netherlands Historical Society. Their website explains: “Although the number of students has been increasing for years, funding per student has dropped. This has left precious little time and financial resources to conduct high-quality research or deliver high-quality teaching, let alone both.” Due to Covid-19 restrictions, instead of one large demonstration, dozens of smaller actions were organized across the country. At Radboud University, lecturers entered the Spiegelwaal and in Utrecht, protesters emptied a bucket of water on their heads, and on social media, staff and students used the hashtag #NormaalAcademischPeil.
Even Pieter Duisenberg, President of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU), withstood the bitter cold and entered the water in his suit to sound the alarm on April 6. Dripping from the water, he appeared on camera stating that universities are barely able to keep their heads above the water. He referred to the recent report from the independent consultancy firm Price Waterhouse Coopers, which confirms that Dutch universities structurally lack 1.1 billion if they have to meet the ambitions set by the Ministry of Culture and Science (OCW).
“What I find particularly frustrating is that our passion for our work is being exploited. Structural overwork is the norm for regular activities, and on top of that many tasks are expected for which no hours are calculated at all – student mentoring, public events, speaking to the press,” says Sara Polak, lecturer North American Studies. “Especially for those on fixed term contracts it is nearly impossible to refuse such requests, because these activities increase your chances of building an academic career.”
Students were involved in the action day too. Freya Chiappino, vice chair of the student union LSVB, formed a spectacular sight with a red flag and yellow snorkel. She commented on national television, “You can see in the lecture rooms that student numbers are going through the roof. Lecturers are overworked. Almost every lecturer is burnt out and that has become the norm.”
Elisa Da Vià, lecturer at International Studies, maintains that student support is crucial. “Students are natural allies in our struggle. Their right and expectations to receive high quality university education by dedicated and passionate teachers can only materialize in a context of labor security, supported by appropriate resources and long term investment in teaching and research. We encourage our students to be vigilant, active, and creative in showing their solidarity and making their demands.”
One group of protesters was particularly loud, chanting “come hail, come snow, casual contracts have to go” to the rhythm of a large drum. They carried a banner with “Casual Leiden: refinance, reform, redistribute.” Sai Englert, lecturer at Middle Eastern Studies and International Studies, explains: “We recognize that underfunding is a structural, sector wide problem. So we support national demands for sustainable financing. But we also understand that this sectoral reality is reproduced and sustained by local managerial decisions. So we also fight for a reorganized higher education sector, in which resources, opportunities, and support are redistributed equally.”
Polak: “I am somewhat done with the phenomenon of ‘ludic actions.’ To be honest, I think that only serious industrial action can make a real difference.”