From where I sit - Low country, low standards

April 23, 2009

The Dutch university calls itself a "centre of excellence", using buzzwords such as "quality", "creativity" and "innovation".

The facts belie the propaganda. The university's budget is based on passing grades and diplomas awarded, exam repeats for students who fail are routine. Its student-to-teacher ratio is many times that of the elite US and UK institutions it pretends to emulate.

Its course evaluations reflect popularity rather than intellectual content, the bureaucrats outnumber academic staff (where the two can be distinguished), and social science research is increasingly subservient to the Government.

Behind closed doors, academic bureaucrats warn teachers to "help students get their diploma" - preferring good students is not only "elitist" but also a "crime".

Students have to graduate on time or the Government will not pay the university for teaching them - after all, the bureaucrats argue, good teaching must result in passing grades. The result is a dumbed-down curriculum that yields pass marks that "prove" good teaching to be the norm.

Despite ritual condemnation, this culture of mediocrity persists because it serves vested interests: it provides students with a passport to white-collar work; academics, job security; bureaucrats, efficiency. For the Government, it is "mission accomplished" - better to give out white-collar work permits than pay out unemployment benefits.

The institution is also a "research university", although a professor is not so much a scholar or scientist as a manager supervising PhD students (as many as possible) and begging for money for projects from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

The NWO monopolises public research funding. Advised by bureaucrats, it underwrites and even designs projects that it deems to be "relevant". As a result, projects are often planned and approved before researchers are engaged.

University appointments and promotions now depend on attracting "external finance", chiefly from the NWO. The going rate in some departments is rumoured to be EUR600,000 (£530,000) for senior lecturer and EUR1 million for professor.

Even so, any hint at venality of office provokes indignation.

Managers demand quality "output": they like cum laude PhD dissertations and articles in "top" journals.

Professors, who get research credit for PhD supervisions and bureaucratic reports, logroll cum laude awards and "co-author" articles with students and junior staff for in-group journals ranked "top" by managers.

This academic droit de seigneur can be comic, as when a professor asked how else to meet publication quotas, and when a graduate student claimed a PhD for published articles "co-authored" with a professor dismissed for plagiarism.

A recent parliamentary inquest embarrassed the university system's retired chief architect on TV. That is all.

Those charged with repairing the system owe their power to the architect's plan and are disinclined to change much.

Interesting work does get done, but mostly outside the mainstream.

A retired professor of anthropology, using his pension as a research grant, is completing a book on intellectual creativity that compares the intellectual and social situation of world-class innovators. He concludes that they would get nowhere in the Dutch university today.

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