Dutch aim to stop academics working at weekends

Education minister Ingrid van Engelshoven says too much research funding is now competitive, leading to intense work stress

September 15, 2020
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Academics should not be forced to squeeze their research into weekends and holidays, according to the Dutch education minister, who admitted that pressure on some researchers had become intolerable and that professional competition had gone “too far”.

Ingrid van Engelshoven wants to reduce stress and time pressure in academia by tipping the balance away from competitive grants and towards more stable support for universities, reversing a long-term research funding trend in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

Speaking to Times Higher Education in the Hague, she hoped that reforms to Dutch academia would mean that in five to 10 years academics would be able to do their research “within normal working hours”.

“So you don’t have to skip your vacation, skip your weekend, because you’re busy all week with teaching your students, designing your online courses [or]…drafting your applications for grants,” she said.

Dutch academia has witnessed a rising tide of dissatisfaction over what some academics see as intolerable stress. Earlier this year, universities were reported to the country’s employment regulator over hundreds of complaints about “structural overtime”, leading to family problems and burnout.

Ms van Engelshoven, who has been in the post since 2017, acknowledged that rising student numbers, plus a switch to competitive rather than basic research funding, had created a situation where work pressure is “too high”.

“Competition is good among scientists, and we always have to keep some form of competition,” she said.

She added that “it has brought us a lot, but we went too far, so we really need a correction in the system”.

“What we see in the Netherlands is that we lost the balance between money for fundamental research at universities and money for research in competition,” she said. “We need to restore the balance.”

Since 2000, the amount of money dished out competitively has roughly tripled in the Netherlands, owing to both Dutch policy shifts and the emergence of the European Research Council. At the same time, grant success rates for the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) have fallen.

These trends have fed into a sense of crisis for the existing academic system – and triggered a rethink of how academics should be incentivised.

Last year, Dutch universities and the NWO set out a number of ideas in a paper called Room for Everyone’s Talent, hoping to reward academics better for their teaching, management and social impact, not just their research record. For example, they want doctoral students to be under less pressure to publish their work in journals simply to tick a career box.

Still, universities say that without more state money, they can relieve only so much pressure from academics’ shoulders.

“I would say, put your money where your mouth is,” said Pieter Duisenberg, president of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands. The need to reapply endlessly for new grant funding meant that academics were “running from project to project”, he said.

According to the association, the per-student budget has dropped by a quarter over the past 15 years.

“That’s putting more and more pressure on staff,” Mr Duisenberg said. Student education was non-negotiable, he said – but this meant that academics were forced to do their research at weekends.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Dutch aim to cut out academics’ weekend work

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