University

These RUG employees are going to The Hague

Why we strike

On Friday, Dutch educators are going on strike. Educational union AOb is calling on all educators – from elementary schools to universities – to come to The Hague. These RUG employees are going. Why?
By Giulia Fabrizi / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen / Photos Luís Felipe Fonseca Silva

Why we strike is a series of portraits of RUG employees who tell us why they are protesting for better education. Over the next few days we will be adding new portraits to this story.

 

Dirk-Jan Scheffers

Professor of molecular microbiology

Professor of molecular microbiology Dirk-Jan Scheffers says the government should take a long hard look at what they actually want from higher education. ‘They should especially consider if what they want is even possible with the budget they’ve allocated’, he explains.

The government created the advisory committee (led by Martin van Rijn) to explore the higher education budget and possible improvements. ‘But that committee has only been tasked with figuring out the distribution of the current funds, without actually increasing the budget. They’re making it so hard for us.’

Scheffers says the current investments aren’t sufficient to achieve the desired ambitions. The number of students is increasing while the total higher education budget has remained the same.

Loss to the quality

‘So there’s less money per student’, he says. ‘I’m in experimental science, so we need to be able to teach practical classes. But we’re increasingly less able to do so. It’s getting more and more difficult to buy the materials we need. But we still have a standard to maintain.’

Scheffers predicts a problem if the government turns a deaf ear to the message educators are sending. ‘The quality of the lecturers directly influences the overall quality of higher education. There is a clear connection between teaching and doing research, but it takes time, and a lecturers have to secure most of the funds for that themselves. If the means are insufficient, lecturers might look for opportunities outside of the Netherlands. That would be a loss to the quality of education in the Netherlands.’

He understands that various parties are trying to invest in education, which he says is sorely needed. ‘We’re working on distributing the money that came available when student grants became student loans’, he says. ‘There are some good ideas. But when we look at the overall quality, we’re forced to conclude that we’re just patching holes. These investments would help us get back to the quality from a few years ago. We don’t even need to do better; we just want to get back to where we were.’

Anke van Dijk

Educational master student Spanish

During her studies, master student Anke van Dijk saw for herself how much the quality of education is declining. ‘I’m doing the educational master, and we’re a small group of students. I’ve noticed that lecturers aren’t given the hours they need for the courses they teach. Some classes were only taught once every four weeks.’

Anke, who represents DAG on the arts faculty council, says that’s because the programme is so small. ‘Society should be fighting to keep programmes like these, because they’re important. But what happens is that the small programmes get less money and they just have to figure it out for themselves.’

The current financial deficits are harming educational quality, says Anke. ‘If you only have class once every four weeks, you’re forced to teach yourself. And I’ve no problem reading all the books and stuff, but I don’t think I got everything from the course that I could have. So why am I paying 2,000 euro to be in school?’

The more, the better

She doesn’t blame the lecturers for a minute; they are making do with what they’ve been given. ‘They just haven’t been given anything. All of education is suffering. Some elementary schools have so few resources that they’re only teaching children four days a week.’

Anke is joining the strike on Friday as a matter of course. ‘I know the deficit is affecting all forms of education. I want to be a teacher myself, so I think solidarity is important. The more people who show up, the better.’

She also attended the higher education strikes last year, on 14 December. ‘There were 7,000 people that day, and the government just ignored them. The ministry didn’t respond at all.’ She feels like educators will have to persist if they want to see actual change.

‘I hope people continue to protest. It’s easy to get disheartened when the ministry stays quiet. But there’s a reason we’re doing this. If the ministry doesn’t respond this time, we might just have to go on strike for a whole week next time. If we all do that, they’ll have no choice but to respond.’

Krina Huisman

PhD student of literature and media sciences

PhD student Krina Huisman says it’s important to send a collective message to The Hague on Friday. ‘We have to make it clear that we’re fed up. They have to stop these budget cuts in education and start investing more. We don’t need quick fixes and short-term results; we want proper plans for the long term.’

Huisman has seen for herself the damage done to education by the budget cuts. ‘People start their PhD careers with the goal of having a career in academia, only to find out along the way how much you have to sacrifice and how uncertain your career really is.’ For instance, there are way more PhDs than there are jobs available in academia. ‘Most of them only get temporary contracts, so they can’t count on anything.’ And in order to have an academic career, people have to forgo everything else.

Diversity

‘Anyone who wants to make it in academia easily works sixty to eighty hours a week. There’s no time left to have a life’, says Huisman. People who do want a life next to their work rarely get offered a job after they finish their PhD track. ‘This practice creates a certain type of person, and I think that also damages the diversity of the type of people we hire at the university.’

Huisman says it leads to one-sidedness: ‘Because people are expected to sacrifice so much, we end up with a group of academics who are all the same type. And that’s a shame, because diversity in groups is qualitatively essential, especially when it comes to gaining and disseminating knowledge.’

According to Huisman, the government should spend more money on manpower in an effort to maintain the quality of higher education. ‘Everyone benefits if we create more jobs. Not just the PhD students who then have better prospects, but the current lecturers as well. If we can hire more people, the lecturers will have more time to spend on their students. This would improve education for everyone in the long term.’

Marian Hanemaaijer

Has worked at the UB for more than thirty years

Marian Hanemaaijer has worked at the UB for decades, and she enjoys every second of it. But she is also sick of the current state of education. ‘We don’t usually participate in strikes at the university, but as educators we have to send a clear message. Education has been underfunded for years. Every single cabinet took a little more money from us, and we never got anything back. We need to draw attention to all the stress this has caused.’

According to Hanemaaijer, the stress that students and professors feel affects the UB as well. ‘We keep getting all these e-mails from people asking if we can send the books they reserved to their offices. They’re so busy they don’t even have time to come to the pick-up desk.

That means we have to move the book in the system and send it physically. It may not seem like a lot of work, but it adds up. We get behind on other things that we’re supposed to do.’

Flexible

On top of that, most of Hanemaaijer’s colleagues are over fifty. ‘At our age, you really start feeling your body. We’re not as flexible and energetic as we were thirty years ago.’ Thirty years ago she might squeeze the extra work in without a problem, but now she just doesn’t have enough time.

A simple solution might be to hire younger employees. ‘But we don’t have the money for that’, she explains. ‘We have a lot of student employees right now. That’s great, but they’re taking over our jobs now.’

Students have an easier time picking things up, says Hanemaaijer, but speedy service desk work is a matter of experience. ‘We know most of the answers to questions off the top of our heads, while students still have to look that up. They’re really nice and eager to learn, but it takes at least a year to train them properly. By then they only have a year left on their contracts, after which we have to train someone else. We’re training new people about twice a month now.’ The only way to lighten the load would be to have the funding for new, permanent colleagues at the UB.

Stephen Milder

Assistant professor European languages and culture for the past 3.5 years

According to American assistant professor of history Stephen Milder, higher education is in crisis. ‘Especially the liberal arts’, he says. ‘All areas of education have been experiencing budget cuts. And the way the money is being distributed is an issue as well.’

According to Milder, who also has a seat on the arts faculty council, people underestimate the importance of liberal arts. ‘We aren’t having the proper conversations about how important the liberal arts are to society.’

He says the lack of funding has led to a decline in the quality of education. ‘And I’m not talking about my salary, because I’m happy with that. I’m talking about the full classes and the increasing number of students. As teachers we have less and less time to properly help individual students with their coursework. That’s not good. It’s detrimental to educational quality.’

Social value

He understands that the university decides how to distribute the money across faculties, but he thinks the government does influence these decisions.

‘The government has ways of emphasising which faculties are the most important’, he explains. ‘Currently, they’re really focused on the natural sciences and technical programmes. If you keep cutting the budget and talking about some fields being more important than others, the quality of the undervalued field suffers.’

Milder points out how important it is to have a dialogue about the social value of various programmes.

He knows a one-day strike won’t solve these problems, but he hopes it’s a step in the right direction. ‘First, it’s very important that the government acknowledges the problem. Second, we have to start a discussion about increasing investments in education. That means we have to talk about what we can do to ensure that the university is a place that serves both students and society. It shouldn’t just become a place that hands out diplomas.’

 

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