Talking leadership 22: Simone Buitendijk on ending precarious working

The University of Leeds vice-chancellor discusses why UK higher education should go Dutch and the national scandal that drew her to academia

四月 19, 2022
Simone Buitendijk, vice-chancellor at University of Leeds
Source: University of Leeds

At some point you just have to assume early career researchers are good enough and give them a permanent job, says Simone Buitendijk, who became vice-chancellor of the University of Leeds in September 2020.

The Dutch professor is concerned about the lack of stability for early career researchers – “it’s an issue that is keeping us all awake at night” – and she’s taking a radical, yet simple, step to address it. She plans to at least halve the number of fixed-term contracts in use at Leeds, in a move that the university says is set to benefit over 500 members of its 9,200-plus staff this year. This will largely be implemented by converting the majority of fixed-term contracts held by staff who have served for more than three years to permanent contracts.

“Of course there are some issues with it, some side-effects and costs. But we’re willing to take those because I know for a fact [that] that’s going to create a lot of stability and we don’t have that enough right now,” she says. 

It is riskier than providing a four-year-contract, she adds, but “at some point you just have to assume that they’re good enough”.

This is just one of the tactics in her ambitious strategy to shake up the university, and more widely the higher education sector in the UK, and beyond.

“We feel we have a global role to play, as well as a local and national role,” she says.  

“I’m not saying this just for this interview, but universities are the only networked institutions that can really make a dent in the global challenges, that can truly help solve climate change, global health issues, poverty and inequalities. Because we’re not just doing amazing research that the world really needs but we’re also training the next generation of global citizens.”

However, she believes that research universities are not “doing our best work”.

“I don’t think we’re focused enough on the global challenges, on the big issues that face our planet,” she says, adding that she wants Leeds to “become more socially activist”.

For Buitendijk, the crux of the problem is that universities are not being truly collaborative: “We’re still too much focused on competing with each other; competition is still very much the hallmark of academia and especially in research and research outputs.” She’s convinced competition is a curse and rejects the notion that it drives up standards.

“For me, it doesn’t matter whether we’re working with Stanford or Bradford. It’s really about how can we work together to achieve the most impact and be our best selves,” she says. “The world really needs us as universities but sometimes we’re so inward-looking.”

Going Dutch

Universities in Buitendijk’s home nation, the Netherlands, are currently overhauling the promotions system to place more value on teaching, societal impact and leadership. Buitendijk believes the UK should follow the Dutch example.  

“It really is about the research ecosystem – fewer fixed-term contracts, less breathlessness in academic life and feelings of insecurity, to having larger, longer-term research projects with not just the PI being in the star role, but also younger, early career researchers and also technicians. And eventually just creating a whole academic community that’s more equilibrised,” she says.

Buitendijk wants to implement this at Leeds, but also lead on it nationally, and is hoping to work with UK Research and Innovation.

Buy-in from leaders is vital, she says. “We really need to create a global movement, away from competing with each other in the rankings, which in the end don’t really say that much.”

Universities can improve greatly but if they do it at a slower rate than others they go down in the rankings, she says. Plus, “we’re all smart people so we start gaming the system”.

She also points out that rankings, combined with the journal publishing system, discourage multidisciplinary working. “It’s much harder sometimes for referees to understand how to interpret [multidisciplinary research projects]”, which means “it’s much harder to get them in top-read journals”.

Buitendijk won’t go so far as to suggest rankings should be scrapped, but “maybe at some point, we need to find a mix of more traditional ranking measures and a whole new way of defining our outputs”, she says.  

At Leeds, she is designing KPIs to measure some of the changes she seeks to make: “It’s also going to look at research culture very differently, it’s going to look at our societal impact very differently.”

Changing education

The lack of emphasis on collaboration is also an issue in teaching and causes a problem when students start their careers, Buitendijk believes, and she wants Leeds students to prepare for much more group work.

“When you’re starting in your workplace your boss is not going to come in and say, ‘let’s see who’s going to do the best on their exam’. At the end of the day, you’re supposed to work together and create something as a group,” she says. 

Before she took the helm at Leeds, Buitendijk was vice-provost (education) at Imperial College London. There she was an advocate for new forms of learning and gained a reputation for being somewhat anti-lecture.

“I don’t think the lecture is dead,” she clarifies. “But I think the lecture as the predominant mode of teaching – 45 minutes straight with the teacher on the stage, or even worse with their back towards the students while they’re scribbling on the blackboard – that is just not the way for students to really learn.”

Shorter lectures followed by group discussion and application is better, she says. “The scientific evidence is overwhelming…If you haven’t applied particular basic facts, [if] you haven’t played around with them and tried something that didn’t work, and then tried something else…you don’t retain that knowledge.”

Retraining faculty to deliver learning in a new mode is a big undertaking, however; does she worry about adding workload to already overburdened faculty?

Yes, she says, which is why she’s hiring 100 lecturers who will focus solely on education innovation to facilitate this shift. And they will track the progress of their changes to contribute to the body of evidence on teaching in higher education.

A passion for evidence

Buitendijk herself was on the path to becoming a medical doctor, and may never have become an academic if it weren’t for her involvement in a global maternal health scandal.

A drug called diethylstilbestrol (known as DES) was billed as preventing miscarriage and premature labour, and marketed to pregnant women from the 1940s to the early 1970s, but it turned out to have serious side-effects for the babies. One in 1,000 of the daughters of women who took the drug developed cancer when they hit puberty. 

Buitendijk read about the story in a textbook while in medical school and asked her mother if she had taken it. She had. Buitendijk wasn’t physically affected but she became a patient activist. “I started to look at medical work differently and I started to realise especially the importance of evidence-based medicine, which was something that was just developing at that time,” she says.   

After finishing her medical degree she had the choice of starting to practise as a doctor or continuing her studies. “That’s when I started my degree in epidemiology and public health,” she says. “I enjoyed that so much that I have never been back to actual clinical work.”

Since then she has lived the academic life – eventually moving from research to administration – and hasn’t looked back. “I don’t want to sound megalomaniacal, of course I know I can only play a tiny little part in this huge planet, but I’ve always been a bit of a world changer. And I think this is the absolutely best job for someone with that kind of drive.”

Quick facts

Born: Netherlands, 1958

Academic qualifications: MD from the University of Utrecht; master’s in epidemiology and public health from Yale University; PhD in epidemiology and public health from Leiden University

Academic hero: Carl Wieman, “a guru of active learning”

This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50 interviews over 50 weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series here.



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