Education

Small courses wither away

Teaching in your free time

How important is medieval Latin? How relevant is ancient Greek? One thing is for sure: the people teaching these classes spend way more time on them than they get paid for.
By Jelmer Buit / Illustration by Kalle Wolters / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

It’s not easy, says Bea Blokhuis. Last semester, she taught Medieval Latin I for the tenth time. She had four students in her class.

The students have four contact hours a week, and she has to prepare every single class. Then there are the assignments to discuss with the students, which takes time as well. Blokhuis isn’t entirely sure how much. But she’s only been appointed for 0.1 FTE, meaning she only gets paid for 3.8 hours a week. ‘Obviously that’s not even remotely enough.’

She would love to draw more students to her class, to advertise it more. Her class is an essential support course for anyone researching medieval history. ‘But I don’t have the time to advertise my class. It’s just not in my contract.’

Blokhuis is not the only one in the arts department in this particular situation. Lecturers who teach small classes spend much more time on their courses than the faculty pays them for.

Free time

‘There’s this disconnect between the enthusiasm I have and responsibility I feel to teach my classes well, and the number of hours I’m getting paid to do so’, says Blokhuis’ colleague, Saskia Peel-Matthey, who teaches a research class in ancient Greek. ‘I just don’t have enough hours. I can’t properly teach my classes in the time that I have, so I often use my own free time as well as my research time.’

I just don’t have enough hours

‘Many students are forced to basically teach themselves’, says René Cappers, who teaches a class in archaeobotany. ‘That’s because we lecturers simply don’t get enough hours to teach them. I used to spend hours in the laboratory. It’s such a shame that I can’t anymore.’

For years, lecturers were assigned contract hours on the basis of ECTS. This particular model was aimed at a ‘model-based determination of the education demand in groups of twenty students’. This translates into 0.1 FTE for every ten ECTS. Student numbers were not taken into account in this model.

Too static

‘You were given a certain number of hours’, says Sabrina Corbellini, who teaches the writing, handwriting, and printing course to fifteen students this year. ‘And you just had to make do. I wouldn’t know how many hours I was given for each student, though.’

It is clear to absolutely everybody that this system wasn’t working; even the faculty board knew it. ‘The model was too static’, says faculty board managing director Wouter Heinen. ‘It was so linear. We made a work group for every twenty students. We weren’t encouraged to choose any other kind of method that came with fewer teaching hours. It’s also why the arts faculty was doing so poorly, financially speaking, for a while.’

This will all change in September 2019. In the new model, lecturers will receive hours basted on the both the working method and the number of students in the course. There are different types of working methods: lectures, seminars, intensive seminars, extensive lecture-seminars, and intensive lecture-seminars. Then there are also extra-intensive seminars.

A minimum of ten hours will be allocated to each type of class, as a start. A lecturer who teaches an intensive lecture and seminar will be allocated 4.6 hours per student, up to 49 students, on top of those hours. For an extensive lecture and seminar, the lecturer will be allocated 3.6 hours per student for the same group, while an extra intensive seminar is worth 7.2 hours. The cluster board can also add a few extra hours wherever they are needed.

Whether this is a good thing remains to be seen. For Blokhuis, it would mean she’d get 38.8 hours next year, when in reality, the work takes her 64 hours.

Not enough

The other lecturers at the arts faculty aren’t happy yet either. ‘A ten-hour minimum? I can barely write a study guide in that time’, Peel-Matthey scoffs. ‘The new model won’t be much help this way.’

They’re not considering the amount of work lecturers do

The faculty council has expressed criticism as well. ‘The minimum number of contact hours hasn’t been taken into account when calculating the ten-hour basis’, says DAG Letter faction chair Anke van Dijk. ‘They’re simply not considering the amount of work the lecturers actually do.’

‘Ten hours isn’t enough’, says Stephen Milder, lecturer of European languages and cultures and faculty council member. ‘In some cases, the contact hours aren’t actually covered by the number of hours budgeted for a seminar.’

Moreover, the new hour model is supposedly a financial incentive to make classes as big as possible. ‘The faculty board claims this model is more honest’, says Van Dijk, ‘but it’s just not very sympathetic towards the lecturers.’

Low

‘We have to make do with a limited budget’, says Milder. ‘We have to talk about the importance of these courses, and not let everything depend on a few calculations.’

Heinen acknowledges the basis is too low. ‘But it’s the minimum number of hours you need, even if your class is cancelled. You have to write a study guide, or put things on Nestor. If you include all the contact hours in that basis, you practically return to the old system. Then it’s all just fixed again.’

But, says Heinen, the board has no choice but to keep an eye on the finances. ‘We’ll definitely protect small bachelor programmes that fulfil an important societal need. But we can’t be sure if we can continue to finance absolutely everything.’

That means that some courses might be taken off the schedule after all, or be deferred for a year. ‘That is possible with every model,’ says Heinen. ‘The courses are ultimately not there because the teachers want to give them, but to train the students in a certain way. And compulsory courses are always offered.’

Cultural discussion

Milder and Van Dijk disagree with this argument. They feel faculties should look beyond returns. ‘There will always be courses that attract only a few students, but that doesn’t mean those courses are useless. Popularity is not a yardstick for value’, says Van Dijk.

Courses need to be taught properly, and not at the expense of lecturers

In the meantime, lecturers worry that they’ll be teaching on their own time or when they should be working on their research. Heinen says that’s certainly not supposed to happen. ‘Courses need to be taught properly, and that shouldn’t be done at the expense of the lecturers.’

‘We’re still looking for the perfect method, and the allocation of hours needs to happen in a reasonable way. To guarantee that, implementation rules have been established for the cluster boards. But we do expect lecturers to help us figure out alternative methods. We have very limited means. If we want to solve our issues, we have to make some changes.’

Vibrant

The new model is intended to help the faculty. ‘We can’t keep taking on every single thing when we’re also trying to combat work strass. Our ambition is to show everyone that we’re a vibrant, talented faculty where students get an excellent education. That means we have to get past this whole work stress discussion. That’s what this model is intended for.’

Milder and Blokhuis aren’t as optimistic. ‘Sure, small courses may be protected. But in the end there will be less room for them’, says Milder.

Twenty years ago, Medieval Latin was a large programme in Groningen, says Blokhuis. ‘Just look at what’s left of it. It’s a miracle this post still exists. Fortunately, my retirement is still a long way away. But I’m not sure if anyone will be willing to take over this small appointment after I leave. It might mean the end of the course.’

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