Dutch universities face inspections over ‘structural overtime’

Hundreds of complaints are passed to regulator, including claims that punishing hours and pressure have contributed to divorces and estrangement from children

January 28, 2020
Man working at computer in evening
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Dutch universities face inspections from the country’s employment watchdog after hundreds of academics complained that they were working unpaid “structural overtime”, which in some cases has contributed to divorce and estrangement from children.

The move marks a further escalation of tactics by Dutch academics campaigning against long hours and what they say is intolerable workplace pressure.

Employees at Dutch universities put in an extra 12 to 15 hours a week, at least a third more than their contracted hours, according to a report based on more than 700 survey responses that was handed to the Inspectorate SZW, which investigates working conditions.

“I work every evening, and at least a few hours on the weekend. If grading needs to be done, I work through the night,” said Ingrid Robeyns, professor of the ethics of institutions at Utrecht University and one of the leaders of WOinactie, an academic campaign against cutbacks which has coordinated the complaints.

“I just don’t have time for proper exercise. And friends become a luxury. And it’s normalised,” she added.

The WOinactie report says that overtime is creating “relationship problems, divorce and alienation from children”.

“Private life? What does that mean?” said one respondent. More than a third of professors said that their workload had damaged their relationships or family.

“Unrealistic” hours to prepare and deliver teaching, as student numbers have ballooned, was one of the key culprits blamed for overwork. 

Ashley Longman, a public administration tutor at Erasmus University Rotterdam and one of those who responded to the survey, said that he had a “strong rule not to work weekends” but had to “work evenings to make that happen”.

“Quite a few” colleagues had left academia with burnout and other health problems, he said.

The WOinactie report is not designed to be representative, because it asked for responses from those academics putting in persistent overtime.

But its findings tally with other, more objective assessments. One 2018 survey by the Rathenau Institute thinktank found that researchers’ hours in the Netherlands were in excess of a quarter longer than contractually required.

A spokesman for the Inspectorate SZW said that it took the complaints “seriously”. He said that the inspectorate would look into the complaints as part of university visits already planned for this year.

The inspectorate can demand a plan of action from universities, and check whether it has been implemented.

But Professor Robeyns said that this was unlikely to solve the issue, since previous action plans had failed to make much difference.

Instead, the WOinactie report concludes that overtime can only be reduced with a “structural investment” of €1.15 billion (£970 million) to hire more lecturers.

Dutch universities themselves accept many of WOinactie’s complaints. The Association of Universities in the Netherlands acknowledged that academics were under “considerable pressure”. “What was once an extremely robust structure has now become a rickety system,” a statement said.

It announced measures to cut the burden of grant applications to the Dutch Research Council, such as deadline-free calls.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science welcomed these changes, and said that the minister, Ingrid van Engelshoven, had acknowledged that the system was “squeaking and cracking”.

But he added that “work pressure is primarily a matter for employees and employers” and did not commit to any new funding for universities.

“The Dutch tend not to strike. We always negotiate things out,” said Professor Robeyns. But if nothing changed, academics could potentially organise a strike later in 2020, she said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

It should be up to the individual whether they choose to work overtime or not. They should not be penalised if they choose not to but alternatively they should not be penalised if they choose to. As an academic I also work at nights and usually one afternoon on the weekend, and have for at least 10 years, and enjoy it. I get concerned when I hear that "government watchdogs" are carrying out inspections - maybe it is just the language used but it sounds a bit intrusive.
It would be interesting to see a UK analysis and how for purely teaching staff, how it works out over a 22 week teaching year and something like 8-11 hours of student contact time spread between course teaching colleagues. There appear to be massive disparities between those who are available on campus and those who 'work from home' and those who seem to disappear for months during the summer break. Set against that are the academics who undertake research, publish and are always available to students and other colleagues. Has anyone been brave enough at any institution, to actually measure and scrutinise this before looking at 'workloads' ?

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