Over the last 1.5 years, the VU University Amsterdam has been embroiled in a battle against severe budgetary cuts. The university board (consisting of three members, one of whom is the former CEO of a port company and another, the former CEO of a bank), has launched a reorganization program that includes budget cuts of €33 million. This reorganization will result in 500-600 layoffs (a reduction of 350 full-time workplaces), it will lead to the elimination of many small educational programs and courses, and it is already underway. Last November, the organized reaction of university personnel forced the board to deviate from its original plans. And recently, a national evaluation committee concluded that those same plans undermine the quality of education at the university. This negative evaluation resulted in a severe conflict between the university board and the deans of its faculties, ultimately forcing the university’s rector (one of the board members) to resign.
The opinion piece that follows was written by university employees and published by the Dutch daily, NRC Handelsblad, on Monday 8/4/2013. Although the article draws on the situation at the VU Amsterdam, it takes a broader perspective that implicates higher education as a whole. The rising competition between academics and departments, commercialization of education programs, and cuts to public funding are recognizable across universities. A broader crisis in higher education in the Netherlands and beyond is playing out at the VU, and our organized response to it can serve as a model for resistance.
The crisis at the VU University Amsterdam is a symptom of ‘marketization’ taking over
The recent problems at the VU Amsterdam result from a particular culture of management. This is a plea for turning universities back over to the sciences.
The VU University Amsterdam is facing a crisis of governance. This crisis was covered in NRC Handelsblad when the newspaper published articles covering the 9 month long conflict between the university board, the Works Council, the unions, the deans’ council and the employee platform, ‘Concerned for the VU’. Since then, Lex Bouter, the VU’s Rector Magnificus resigned from his post. As members of ‘Concerned for the VU,’ we endorse the overall analysis published in the NRC on this matter. And yet, we find it regrettable that the coverage may give the impression that education and research at the VU are substandard, as this would be untrue. As an involved party in this conflict, we would like to take this opportunity to publicly elucidate own position on the matter.
The problems that we have raised during this period are not specific to the VU. Nor are they simply the result of failed management or shoddy policy. Rather, this crisis exposes much broader, structural problems. Namely, academic research and education have been overrun by a comprehensive commercialization process, which is accompanied by a shift towards the model of a Manager’s University. As we wage our opposition to this development at the VU, we are aware of the presence of the same problems at universities across the Netherlands (and perhaps Europe).
The university’s commercialization process rests on three pillars. The first is the introduction of a new management model that was made official in 1998 with the Modernization of University Governance law. With this legislation, the independence of departments, faculty members and students was seriously undermined. Universities came under the control of a new generation of managers trained on the principles of New Public Management. The core philosophy was that running a university is essentially the same as running a commercial company. The consequence was that students are treated as clients, degrees as products, while researchers and lecturers as the personnel of the production line.
The second pillar is the creation of a ‘market’ for higher education, especially through a funding model that rewards universities according to the number of degrees that they grant. Universities are incentivized to attract as many students as possible and encourage them to graduate as quickly as possible. The role of public relations and marketing workers became increasingly important as universities were stimulated to follow their ‘competitors’ while carefully sustaining their university’s positive image on the market. Our colleagues in other universities are seen suddenly as competitors.
The third and final pillar is both the least visible and the most reprehensible: the ‘financialization’ of universities and the adoption of the practices of financial markets. In a nutshell, this strategy means that universities must borrow increasing amounts, for instance, in order to finance the construction of new buildings. This has made banks increasingly important behind-the-scenes players in the task of upholding universities. Proponents of this approach expected the advantage of increased efficiency.
However, realistic evaluation reveals that these policies have had disastrous consequences. For the managers who see the university simply as another commercial entity it is not the quality of education that is of primary concern, but revenue and competitiveness. The result is the intensification of education in the pursuit of economies of scale (larger class sizes, fewer contact hours and the emergence of wide curricula with catchy names and little substance), but also lowered labor costs (hiring of young, less-experienced lecturers on temporary contracts). Moreover, universities have taken on the status of debtors, and must therefore ensure that their credit is good. Yet, as we have come to see, this is partly subject to the evaluation of their management. As a result, several small and specialized educational programs come to be evaluated as ‘loss making’.
Moreover, a system of allocating funding according to student success rates produces distorted incentives as creates a systematic pressure for all involved to give students a passing grade. In some cases, the no-cure-no-pay principle is being applied in the case of thesis supervision. If a student fails to submit the dissertation on time, the supervision hours are not remunerated. Fortunately, the large majority of academics have developed a professional ethic that leads them to continue ensuring the quality of student output. However, these systematic flaws are at odds with that ethnical drive.
In the workplace, managers and faculty have become increasingly alienated from one another. The most highly specialized group of employees in the country is treated as a dispensable labour force and faces more and more standardization, penalization and sometimes even straightforward surveillance. Coffee-breaks are reserved for the fittingly cynical condemnation of managers and their ludicrous newspeak, their clumsy involvement in the university’s core tasks of education and research and their superficial advertizing campaigns. Unfortunately, however, the resources, time and energy to do remedy this situation are often lacking.
The VU governance crisis – for which we owe in part to our own passivity – can be seen as a potential source of positive publicity for the university. This crisis is a sign that employees here are rejecting a stance of cynical resignation and demanding the university be given back to faculty, the administrative personnel and the students. The market principles that were introduced 20 years ago within the semi-public sector have clearly failed to improve higher education. While the managers that have benefited most from this development seem to be in a deep state of denial, the university employees at the VU are no longer buying into their narrative. Our hope is that this crisis will not end with the empty ‘sacrifice’ of the Rector, but will instead become the beginning of a radical change in the way higher education is organized at the university. What we need is a realistic alternative. This alternative will not come from the national government. Therefore, we call all university employees across the country to think and act with us.
Jan Abbink, Donya Alinejad, Ellen Bal, Femke Brandt, Lenie Brouwer, Elise Dijkstra, Bertie Kaal, Elly Pauelsen, Dimitris Pavlopoulos, Mark Peters, Marina de Regt, Jeroen Rodenberg, Arjan de Rooy, Matthias van Rossum, Ida Sabelis, Josephien Sierag, Boris Slijper, Bert van der Spek, Houkje Vlietstra, Hans de Waardt, Pieter Wagenaar
The authors of this article are lectures, researchers and administrative employees of the VU Amsterdam. They are all active in the platform ‘Concerned for the VU’. On Thursday, April 25, this platform organizes an open event with title ‘The university of the managers is bankrupt: It’s time for the change!’