The General Education Association (AOb) warns of possible negative effects of the national recognition and value program, such as increased competition in education. Radboud University scientists understand this fear. “The danger is that we now expect every academic to be a five-legged sheep.”
For a long time, academia has been too unilaterally focused on scientists’ research results: universities and research funders seem to agree on this. Too much competition has arisen and this is not good for the quality of the universities.
The national Recognition and Value program should ensure a new balance: “less emphasis on the number of publications” and greater appreciation for education, team performance and good leadership. The target? Less pressure at work and a higher quality of knowledge and educational institutions. But there are some things wrong with those plans, the National General Education Association (AOb) says in opinion articles recently appearing in ScienceGuide and Voxweb.
According to the AOb, the proposals could actually lead to more pressure at work as long as there is no real cultural shift. Members fear that education will also become more competitive, that the hierarchy will continue to provide an unsafe working environment, and that more measurement tools will be created due to the many tasks academics are assessed on. The union is therefore asking for fewer grades and positions and more permanent contracts.
The AOb opinion piece was enthusiastically received within the Radboud Young Academy (RJA), says co-chair Eelke Spaak. He shares the AOb’s concern that implementing the Recognition and Value program will result in new competition. ‘In the past, as a scientist you had to make sure you have a good research record. We wanted to tackle that competitive system. But now you also need to be good at education, impact, management, and other tasks. The danger is that we expect every academic to be a five-legged sheep. ‘
According to Spaak, the positive aspect of the Recognition and Value program is that it emphasizes that excellent researchers with many scientific publications are not by definition the best academics. According to him, the system really needs to be overhauled.
The lecturer and researcher calls Radboud University “a middle ground” in that transition. Spaak: “Something happened after the national Recognition and Value report, but young academics often have to take the lead.” Because that’s how it is? He smiles. ‘The more cynical interpretation is, of course, that older scientists don’t see the importance of cultural change in this way. They grew up in the old system and already have their sheep on land. ‘
‘Quick win’ and long breath
In 2020, Radboud University established its own recognition and evaluation committee. The committee wrote a discussion paper and discussed with faculty councils, deans, and academic staff. The results of those discussions are expected to lead to a vision statement this year. This will become a “sort of catalog of things that the university can improve, with recommendations to consider during implementation,” says the chairman of the committee, Professor Paula Fikkert. “Because the last thing we want is for the measures to translate into more administration, pressure at work or new perverse incentives.”
“Obviously there are quick victories to be achieved,” says the commission chair. ‘This way you can help employees conduct better annual assessments. Other issues require a cultural shift, such as focusing on team performance rather than individual scientists. You can divide tasks differently in a team by not allowing everyone to do everything. For example, there are employees who are good at implementing scientific knowledge in society and others who like to dedicate themselves completely to research. Still others are born leaders. The university needs all those people. ‘
The Recognition and Evaluation Committee focuses on employee well-being. There is still a lot to be gained, according to Fikkert. ‘The workload is high. Academics have many activities that are not considered, such as managing, writing reviews, or additional activities associated with education. These manual services are really necessary for academia to thrive, but employees receive little recognition for it. ‘
He therefore commends the initiatives that have sprung up in recent years in the field of education, such as the Teaching and Learning Center. However, according to the professor, those changes are not yet being felt everywhere. “Everyone thinks that a good education is important, but research results are often the deciding factor in job application procedures.”
Thanks in part to Recognition and Value, the one-sided focus on research is gradually waning. For two years now, academics no longer have to submit all of their scientific publications to NWO when applying for a scholarship, but must justify why they are eligible to do the research. Greater attention is also paid to educational performance. But according to the AOb, this new focus could lead “education to become increasingly competitive, just like research”.
RJA Spaak president understands this concern. “For example, I am in favor of scholarships, but they should not encourage individual competition.” He sees this trend in the Radboud University Graduate Education Award. “That award has existed since 1996 and in the early years it was always awarded to teams, but later more and more often to individual teachers.”
Fikkert agrees. ‘You have to be careful that a stock market doesn’t become a perverse incentive. There is nothing wrong with this in itself, unless a scholarship becomes a condition of a contract, as is often the case with fellowships. Furthermore, it is difficult to measure exactly what a good education is. You can’t rely solely on student ratings, as they are known to be less reliable. If teachers are subsequently judged on those ratings, you just have more unfair competition. ‘
“Less hierarchy does not solve everything”
Fikkert agrees with the problems raised by the AOb regarding work pressure and fixed-term contracts. He also acknowledges that addictive relationships can lead to dangerous situations, but he doesn’t think the solution lies in abolishing the ranks. “Less hierarchy is a noble goal, but it doesn’t solve all problems,” he says. ‘Unsafe situations can exist even in flat organizations. Good leadership can effectively ensure social security. Except that leadership is now automatically invested by professors, while they are not always the best managers. I think the crucial point is to give people the tasks that suit them, regardless of their title. ‘
The AOb’s proposal to work more with permanent contracts can count on Fikkert’s approval. “Unfortunately, there are fewer jobs than candidates, so you still have to compete,” the professor expects. ‘But if you choose someone you trust, you should offer a permanent contract as soon as possible, regardless of whether that person is raising research funds or not. Young researchers shouldn’t be given a single year to prove themselves. Don’t experiment with people. ‘
Spaak is also fascinated by the AOb’s idea of distinguishing only two stages in an academic career. At the beginning of your career you can challenge yourself as a researcher or teacher. After that, you can apply immediately for a permanent job. Spaak: ‘I agree with the AOb that a more radical change is needed than what the Recognition and Value program is aiming for. Small steps are not enough. ‘
Like AOb members, Spaak believes the distinction between academic and support staff may be less rigid. ‘We also take that as a starting point. RJA is the only Young Academy with obper as members. It is not necessary to climb the classical ladder to have a valuable academic caree