Common Knowledge

Jams, Loops and Downward Spirals in the Academic System

Patricia Pisters

May 25, 2015essay,

The current protests by students and staff at the University of Amsterdam and other universities in the Netherlands are a sign of very deep structural problems in the academic system. Rather than just a local problem concerning the language departments ​​or the position of the humanities (well beyond the University of Amsterdam or universities in the Netherlands), these demonstrations are a reaction to an accumulation of national and international developments in the way the university is structured, organised and funded. 

New public management seeks to quantify and optimise results. But in doing so, it instead creates at least two types of undesired dynamics: a glass ceiling that separates teaching from research, and staggering amounts of uncredited bureaucratic work that is slowly but surely replacing the “core business” of academic labour all together. The situation has adopted increasingly Kafkaesque proportions over the last two decades. The academic ship is about to hit the shore and we need to tack it now in order to remain afloat and ensure that it will continue to be seaworthy in the future. Besides a wide variety of specific problems that need to be resolved locally, it might be useful to illustrate the effects of the accumulation of measures that the average scholar faces in his or her daily routine.

Academics – ranging from assistant professors to full professors – are assigned two main tasks: education and research. These days, however, there is less and less time for actual research and teaching. How did this happen? When it comes to research time, scientists now spend up to 30% of their time just searching for funding for prospective research, as Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant recently discovered in a survey of 500 academics. This reveals that a lot of time is spent formulating and organising research projects within the requirements of pre-established frameworks of national and international competitions. This in and of itself is a rat race that is already worthy of discussion with only less than 20% of all applicants making it through each round of the evaluation process, while the other 80% can keep trying with no guarantee of any improvement in their chances the next time. What remains to be taken into account, however, is that all these proposals also need to be assessed by the academic community itself; mostly through large, heterogeneous, time-consuming committees where not all of the members have the necessary knowledge to accurately assess the full range of topics and fields. Each proposal then, includes at least two or three external referees; these too are the academics themselves who anonymously give their verdict on submitted proposals in blind peer-review processes. The whole cycle of reviewing, references and assessment is, in turn, then checked again. The academics themselves – in other committees, of course – do most of this work. Because this system of research funding via competitive project applications is an international and transnational phenomenon, requests for references, reviews and commissions arrive daily from many corners of the world. Moreover, publishers also require referees for proposals, articles and manuscripts. It is impossible to meet all of these requests, but it is important work. Academics readily offer their help and advice in these activities, as well as other services that include, among others, mock interviews, pitch preparation and the sharing of experiences to help colleagues improve their chances in the competitions. Thus, to the time it takes to write proposals, one must also add at least another 10% to 20% to keep the system running and controlling quality standards. Awarded projects, in other words, require a lot of management and administration. The percentage of research time involved in a university appointment varies, but it never exceeds 50% of a full appointment (not including PhD supervision). A complex calculation is not necessary to understand how precious little time is left to do the actual research or writing. Meanwhile, many universities have appointed additional support staff to draft budgets and provide administrative assistance; but these staffs are also barely able to handle the deluge of applications. An average budget requires two man-hours. An average grant takes twenty days to write.

The chances that a project will be approved are small, but once it is selected, the chances that the next project will also be accepted increases exponentially. Funded research time allows an academic to “buy oneself out” of teaching, in order to have enough time to draft a subsequent application. And it is at this point that a watershed between research and teaching staffs emerges. Staff members with a grant and a permanent job (which is, in itself, becoming increasingly rare) have to be replaced in their teaching duties, usually, by young postdocs or academics who are still working on their PhDs. These replacements are hired on temporary teaching contracts without research-allocated time, and they are, therefore, ushered into an entirely different spiral. The standard number of paid hours per seminar for many teaching tasks or other educational formats has decreased steadily over time and so, these academics have to teach more and more classes to maintain a living wage. At many universities, teaching contracts above 0,7 FTE are deemed excessive and unworkable, and are therefore not offered, simply because an increased teaching workload would never fit into a 24 / 7 workweek. Wages are low and so many young aspiring academics continue to accept these less-desirable contracts even though they are overextending themselves. A young academic in this situation is supposed to feel lucky with this opportunity to remain in the academic world, but sees little opportunity for developing thoughts or observations that might lead to the writing of an article or a research proposal. Their ability to obtain funding or to be shortlisted for a competitive research program is thwarted due to their lack of publications. This system also fails to acknowledge their teaching evaluations or overall academic qualities, which further reduces their advancement potential within academia. PhDs and postdocs entering the system as interims end up entangled in an endless loop of teaching because a temporary teaching assignment only ever leads to another temporary teaching assignment.

Moreover, there is also less and less time for actual teaching. In addition to cutbacks in paid teaching hours – which has already made teaching dangerously overwhelming – the past two decades has seen an explosive increase in bureaucracy, administration and control mechanisms such as: tests, course manuals, key and examination files, second and third readers, and a broad range of standardised forms that all have to be filled out manually, all of which requires enormous amounts of time and energy. A long, intense day of teaching is followed by an evening of correcting tests, papers and assignments, and administrative chores; first for your own students, then for those of your colleagues. Let’s add it up: if you, as a teacher, have to perform a second assessment for a group of 30 students for a colleague, on a final assignment (I’m not even talking about a Master thesis), and you spend 15 minutes per assignment (which is obviously not enough to properly provide a profound assessment or any useful feedback, but just enough to adequately check the control points), it is clear that merely completing this additional form can take the equivalent of a full working day. By working weekends and evenings, a teacher may have one day per week (or, more likely, a half a day and an evening) to prepare one’s lectures and classes.

What is most distressing, however, is that this system sustains a feeling of permanent anxiety and distrust among the teachers. Meanwhile, the students, on their side, are also overwhelmed by tests and rules and regulations that get in the way of real learning and independent thinking. Furthermore, in spite of all the feedback forms, record-keeping and standardised contact hours, students still feel that they are largely being ignored by their overworked teachers, both as individuals and as students who simply want to learn and fully comprehend their course studies. These are the contradictions that the current system of constant checks and balances within the university has created. The ultimate goal of this system is, invariably, to prepare for the external audit committees who, every few years or so, reevaluate every degree program and department based on a constantly changing set of rules and standards. Any potential “risk” has to be addressed by some new measure or regulation. Students, meanwhile, have less and less time and space within which to reflect on the entire process. Learning now means attaining instant excellence with little or no room to make mistakes, change perspective, or acquire a sense of development along the way. And, unfortunately, for the students who are already excellent – and there are many – this system fails to offer sufficient challenges or opportunities for personal engagement. In other words, students and teachers feel increasingly like stressed, hunted prey.

Add to this the fact that the ever-shrinking group of tenured staff members are often too busy securing research grants, assuming their management duties and increased administrative tasks as they coordinate personnel and programs, including the negotiation of ever-shrinking budgets for teachers’ wages or they are constantly teaching. Moreover, the imposition of top-down re-organisations in areas such as semester formats or the restructuring of programs, require endless meetings and constant “creative” input. Many teams manage to join forces and muddle through such reorganisations, but these arrangements only last until next year’s reorganisation year. Similarly, the annual game of “musical chairs” involving replacements, new contracts, applications, dismissals and dealing with disappointments, present yet another level of arduous and negative procedural energy.

With regard to research, besides the laborious aforementioned review processes, the current publish-or-perish model means that there is never enough time for those academics who read much less than they publish. The lauded open-access publishing model, which is based on the extremely legitimate notion of publicly accessible research publications, has developed into a system that requires that authors (i.e., the researcher,, writer,, editor and peer reviewers) also ensure that their grants include the so-called Article Processing Costs (APCs), or else they must foot the bill (APC costs can vary between €500 to €5000). This system may have negative repercussions with a failure to arrange open access meaning fewer readers and fewer citations, which, in turn, means less impact (by citation figures or other measures), which means a lower competitive ranking and a decline in one’s chances to attain future grants, and so on.

All this, however, does not mean that we should return to a system with no sense of accountability or that demands uncontrolled costs and no sense of how to effectively and fairly manage a budget. Sensible corrections have been applied over the years ​​to a system that was untenably expensive and often unproductive. There are great advantages in searching for funding via thematically-oriented projects and collaborations on both the national and international level. Recalibrations, adjustments, the (interdisciplinary) exchange of ideas among colleagues, and the learning of best practices in education, teaching and pedagogy are all healthy developments. But profit-driven management and efficiency measures have created an inhuman and unsustainable system that has reached dangerous levels to the point that research increasingly can only be performed within certain frameworks such as a specific national discourse or top-down programming increasingly determined by the interests of industry and the business community. It is important, however, to improve working conditions and labour contracts. Meanwhile, portions of research budgets must be made available for independent research, smaller-scale projects and special dissertations, so that university research departments can regain some measure of autonomy again.

It is in such a highly diverse research environment that unexpected connections, unpredictable discoveries and potentially invaluable observations and insights can emerge. In the field of education, we need to put the focus back on content that is driven by students and teacher curiosity and enthusiasm. We need to abandon the illusion of quality control through constant testing and monitoring. A positive situation means a diversity of competency where adequate, good and excellent students can all work together. We need to turn the page across the board on a system of distrust and on the prevalent fear of isolated examples of underachievement and poor performance, which currently imposes too many rules and regulations. A return to a system based on trust and common sense would go a long way toward correcting our past mistakes as we move into the future. This would finally allow us to once again turn to the absolutely essential tasks of excellent teaching and research.

This article appeared in Dutch in De Groene Amsterdammer on March 11, 2015.

Editorial Common Knowledge

Patricia Pisters is professor of film at the Department of Media Studies of the University of Amsterdam and director of the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis (ASCA). She is one of the founding editors of the Open Access journal Necsus: European Journal of Media Studies. She has published on political cinema, transnational media, neurocinematics and film-philosophy. She is currently finishing a book on the Dutch filmmaker Louis van Gasteren and starting a project on ‘mines and minds’ around the idea of filmmakers and artists as metallurgists. 

Common Knowledge
Common Knowledge

In recent weeks, student and sometimes faculty protests and occupations have rocked universities and art schools from Montreal and Toronto to Amsterdam and London (where the University of Arts, LSE and King’s College were all affected).1 This transnational wave of collective action has its roots in systemic issues that earlier led to the 2010 and 2014 UK student protests and the 2012 protests in Quebec. The latter saw the emergence of the “red square” symbol, which this spring was taken up by the students who appropriated the Maagdenhuis – the University of Amsterdam’s headquarters – and by the Dutch De Nieuwe Universiteit movement in general.2

Of course, a movement like this doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere; last year’s occupation of the church at VU University Amsterdam by students in the Earth and Life Sciences faculty had similar causes as the much more visible Bungehuis and Maagdenhuis occupations by UvA humanities students this year. Both the VU’s Earth and Life Sciences and the UvA’s Humanities departments were facing a Texas Chain Saw Massacre treatment, with programs being merged or abolished altogether, and dozens or even up to 150 jobs being cut. Meanwhile, Erasmus University in Rotterdam announced that it was getting rid of its Philosophy faculty, treating it as excess baggage; shades of Middlesex University, which closed its influential Philosophy department in 2010. 

If Holland, and continental Europe in general, are just as affected by the implementation of neoliberal policies and the financialisation of universities as the UK, Canada and the US, the effects differ: in the Netherlands, the protests were sparked not by sky-high tuition fees inaugurating a life of debt but by the aforementioned cuts in programs and staff, and by the resulting sense that the university is being turned into a “cookie factory”, churning out graduates on the cheap. The amount of funding Dutch universities receive from the state per student continues to dwindle, and this has precipitated a growth drive that, in a proper Freudian manner, reveals itself to be a death drive. As the total number of students continues to grow, the strain on the budget only becomes more intense.3 A few years ago, the Humanities department staff at one Dutch university were informed that as a result of this mechanism, they would have to expand by some fifteen percent each year in order to safeguard their budget. Meanwhile, there is an increasing dependency on third-party funding and on the state’s Stalin-like, neoliberal funding body, the NWO – which steers Humanities research via its near-exclusive focus on “the creative industries” and a technocratic understanding of digital humanities.

That the funding calculus may pan out differently per university and even per faculty within a university provides ample room for infighting and backstabbing.4 Furthermore, the protests often remain localized, and students are attacked in the media and online platforms as privileged and spoiled brats—even though the Maagdenhuis occupiers insisted on framing their actions as part of a more general struggle of a steadily worsening status quo, and on the forging of alliances with groups who are in far worse legal and economic situations. The aim of this “virtual round table” is both to learn from their actions and provide a platform for thinking beyond this particular situation. 

The strategy in presenting a constellation of short texts by professors, lecturers, PhD candidates, students and alumni, as well as by artists and activists, is to further the analysis of the present situation (in the Netherlands in particular) and the development of strategies and practices after the police evicted the Maagdenhuis occupiers on April 11.  But the “new university” doesn’t need to be something that is merely discussed ad infinitum as a beautiful project forever awaiting its actualisation. As some of our contributions stress, the Maagdenhuis was the new university; with its daily program of talks and discussions; the students turned the production and problematisation of knowledge into a matter of common concern. As everyday praxis, as a reconfiguration of academic protocols, the Maagdenhuis “reappropriation” was both political and aesthetic practice; it was a commoning of the financialised university that was for all to see and sense, and participate in. 

In the first volume of his Social History of Knowledge, Peter Burke notes that while most Renaissance humanists were trained at Europe’s universities, these institutions proved inhospitable to their intellectual practices. From Petrarca and Ficino to Erasmus, none of these scholars and intellectuals ever received tenure. Erasmus was offered various positions but took great pains to remain independent, or to juggle his dependencies in such a way that no regular university job was required (which makes Erasmus University Rotterdam the second most ironic university name in the Netherlands, right after the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam). The important debates occurred not at the university, but at the humanists’ more informal counter-institution: the academy.5

Anachronistic and perverse though it may seem to invoke these precedents at a moment when posthumanist theory holds sway over much of the humanities (or should that be: the posthumanities?), we find ourselves in a strikingly similar situation. Now that the institution has been occupied by a managerial caste that imposes “financial necessities”, some opt to leave, others withdraw. What are the strategies for reappropriation, for infiltration? How do we construct actual academies – no matter how temporary and fragile – within academia?