Science and education policy
YAL raises its voice on policy matters.
What do we do?
The Young Academy Leiden reflects on current science and education policies at Leiden University and beyond. As science and education policy workgroup, we provide advice and input to the university on matters important to academia.
We discuss the major questions that bear on current and future policy decisions, with particular regard to how they affect the new generation of academics. Examples of this include the internationalisation of students and staff, increasing work pressure, avenues for younger researchers to develop their careers, the funding of higher education, including the effects of budget cuts and the system of research funding, and the integration of research and teaching.
As young researchers, invested in the everyday practice of scientific research and hailing from a wide range of disciplines, we draw on a varied palette of experiences and priorities. Our aim in these policy matters is to be a constructive and independent voice, and to be sensitive to both current trends and long-term prospects. We will issue position papers and statements that express our general views on policy matters and the values that ought to inform them. In addition, we will organise meetings with different interest groups as well as with policy makers, at the university and beyond, both to listen and learn from them and to communicate our positions.
Note: this position paper is also available as a PDF.
Many academics struggle with work pressure. This is a well-known problem. We believe that there is not only a high workload but also a fragmentation of tasks, rigid timeframes and other factors that make it difficult to avoid having many peak moments and, especially, to reserve time for focused research. A severely competitive environment and a focus on quantitative targets worsens things. So we face a complex mix of factors that creates high levels of stress, is not conducive to science and ruins the equal playing field.
Recommendations that we outline below include the following:
- Allow a diversification in talents and accomplishments, and focus on the quality of contributions to the respective field(s) instead of on the quantity of research output.
- Introduce a shorter and more clearly structured academic year, so that (early career) researchers can manage their research time properly.
- Allow lecturers to organize their teaching (including assessment and content) more freely and aim for a better match between research interests and teaching.
- Provide guidelines on how and when we communicate, emphasizing office hours and sticking to work-only communication channels, also among colleagues.
- When working with hour tabulations (programmanormen), these should genuinely be close to realistic hours spent and include such tasks as outreach, peer review, fostering initiatives to improve academia, and other forms of collegiality and academic citizenship.
A recent report of the World Health Organization has found that long work hours are ‘estimated to be responsible for about a third of all work-related disease, making it the largest occupational disease burden.’ Academia is one of the sectors where work pressures are often excessive. This is an international problem, which finds its roots in developments in the academic world but also in society at large. In the Netherlands, roughly 70% of academics indicate that work pressure is too high and there have been various movements protesting this (see e.g. Normaal Academisch Peil, WOinActie and protests by students). The Leiden Staff & PhD survey from 2018 (‘Personeels & Promovendimonitor’) makes clear that Leiden University is no exception. The COVID-19 crisis has further intensified the feeling of an unhealthy work pressure and stress at Leiden University.
The issue of unhealthy work pressure is well known and has triggered an investigation of the inspectorate of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment at all Dutch universities. Leiden University has several initiatives in place, such as those of the Healthy University, and guides to help cope with work pressure. Nevertheless, it seems that initiatives in the past years have had limited effect and target symptoms rather than causes. This suggests that the problem runs deep and will not be easily solved. We believe that to truly alleviate work pressure, we need structural changes to how we organize our teaching and research, changes in our own mindset about how we see academic excellence, as well as smaller changes in our daily practices.
Points of concern
The excessive work pressure that especially early career academics experience does not have a singular cause, and the extent to which these issues affect particular individuals vary. Still, there are several overall points of concern we wish to raise.
Work pressure arises from the large number of tasks academics are expected to carry out simultaneously throughout the academic year. These include a large number of tasks that are contractually required but also a wide range of ‘supplementary’ tasks, such as acting as a peer reviewer and acting on editorial boards. Tasks can come all at once and the fragmentation in tasks can have an adverse impact on research. This all adds to the pressure academics experience. The structural overwork for academics is not only unhealthy but also skews the equal playing field (some are more able to work overtime than others), and hence also negatively impacts inclusion and diversity.
Those who have heavy teaching duties face further obstacles to their time management. At Leiden University, the current academic calendar has semesters back-to-back. For many, the majority of research has to be conducted in short periods of time, such as before the start of the new academic year or during a teaching-free block. These periods are, however, often dedicated to, among other things, (i) the supervision of Bachelor, Master and/or PhD theses, (ii) teaching and assessment preparations for the new academic year, and (iii) a wide range of activities that are crucial for early career academics to establish themselves as internationally-recognized scholars, such as attending conferences and completing grant (pre-)proposals. During this time, which many academics try to ‘reserve’ for research given the intensity of teaching and administrative tasks during the semester, unforeseen tasks and heavy email traffic make it hard to actually use that time effectively for research. This creates stress. As a result, many face an unhealthy choice between being able to conduct focused research and taking a proper summer holiday. These issues are worsened by the absence or gradual disappearance of periodically scheduled research sabbaticals at some institutes and faculties. This overall structural setup makes it hard – sometimes simply impossible – to do the in-depth research required to make one’s mark as an early career academic, feeding into the widely experienced feeling of ‘just not doing enough’ and ‘not developing as an academic’.
A highly competitive work environment is also a contributing factor. When the atmosphere is intensely competitive (which it certainly is for early career academics), peers can give each other the feeling of underperforming in different areas of the academic work. Even within different areas of performance, our understanding of ‘excellence’ continues to be inflated: to attain ‘research excellence’, for instance, it no longer suffices to regularly publish in renowned, international, peer-reviewed journals -- one is also expected to regularly obtain large grants from prestigious funding bodies (which report small success rates). The rat race (and the inflation of excellence that fuels it) is acknowledged but too little has been done so far to stop it; academics are expected to excel, and to do so on many fronts (see Rethinking Academic Excellence).
Another point of concern is the unreasonable divergence between the time given by employers for certain tasks and the actual time it takes to properly complete those tasks. Many academics are expected to produce a certain number of papers and grant applications per year, while also completing administrative tasks and, in most cases, teaching and/or coordinating various courses. Delivering on all of these tasks is simply not possible within normal working hours. There is not always a single party to blame. Tasks are often given by different parties (different programmes, institutes, faculties). Unreasonable hour tabulations increase the likelihood that academics sacrifice their personal time for uncredited overwork.
A deeply unfortunate effect of the unreasonable expectations of what academics can achieve across-the-board is the undermining of the quality of science. Researchers are forced to produce ‘output’ in rapid order just to meet publication and application targets and are under pressure by a perceived publish or perish culture that leaves little room for engaging in the long-term, meaningful contributions to one’s discipline that requires research that is slower, harder and riskier. It runs contrary to the purpose of academic institutions when academics are under severe pressure to ‘learn how to cut corners’ to meet unrealistic quantitative targets.
Communication is another exacerbating factor. Handling emails is a substantial portion of the academic’s time. The change to various online channels of communication have made it very easy to send out messages, and hence many are sent out, often requiring answers. Overwhelmed by crowded inboxes it becomes increasingly tempting to also use alternative means of communication such as various messenger apps. A proliferation of communication channels, however, makes it harder to manage time spent on professional communication. The quantity and scattering of work-related information can make it difficult to keep an overview of tasks and can cause one to feel overwhelmed.
Finally, early career academics who are on a short-term contract face tremendous levels of stress that accompany job insecurity, and this severely intensifies all the points of concern outlined above. Many feel that overwork is unfair, and unhealthy, but a necessary requirement to improve their chances in the increasingly competitive job market.
To address these concerns, Young Academy Leiden offers a number of recommendations. We recognize that some of these are harder to implement than others, so we distinguish between recommendations that are relatively easy to implement within 6 months, those that can be implemented within 6 to 18 months and those recommendations that require larger structural changes that we think are needed.
Recommendations for changes that we can implement within the next 6 months:
- Autonomy in teaching organization. Especially in positions that require a staff member to juggle a multitude of (teaching) responsibilities, there should be enough components to the job that are satisfying and staff members should be granted enough autonomy to ensure this, including the content of the course and the way they organize coursework and assessment.
- Teaching closer to research interests. We should strive hard for the optimal match between a lecturer’s courses and (research) expertise. If a lecturer is required to take on a (new) course outside of their immediate expertise, additional time should be allocated for this.
- The role of supervisors and the R&D interview in tackling work pressure. Working overtime should not be expected or normalized by supervisors. Supervisors should try to monitor factors that create overtime or too much stress, and they should take the necessary steps to help eliminate overwork and fragmentation of tasks. It’s essential that a fair assessment is given, which takes the academic’s personal situation into account.
- Less emphasis on quantity of papers. The main emphasis of evaluating research excellence should be on the quality of contributions to the respective field(s) instead of on the quantity of research output. If any quantitative targets are nevertheless set, they should be very reasonable and they should leave room for long-term and interdisciplinary projects, and not be used to put pressure on researchers to produce, which can lead to ‘filler’ publications, pieces simply repackaging old ideas with minor additions.
- Internal communication charter. To help reduce pressure due to handling and keeping track of emails, messages and other forms of communications, there should be a university-wide endorsement of a communication charter that is occasionally distributed among staff. An example of such a charter is this one, which sets out a clear email etiquette.
- Professional communication ideally takes place within working hours. Recipients should feel free, and be encouraged, to answer messages only within their own working hours if an answer is required.
- There should be a clear agreement between co-workers on the number and nature of professional communication channels. It should in principle not be necessary for co-workers to sign up for a social media platform in order to stay in the loop concerning university-related matters. A clear agreement regarding the number and nature of communication channels should be reached between co-workers and supervisors, and clear boundaries should be set.
- A strict distinction between professional and private communication channels should be maintained. We should ensure that work-related communication takes place via agreed professional channels only. Contacting co-workers via their personal/private phone number, email address or social media account(s) should not be considered acceptable, even within working hours. If staff should be reachable by mobile phone, this should be provided by the employer.
Recommendations for changes that we can start implementing over the next 6 to 18 months:
- Diversification in appreciation of talents and accomplishments. We support a change in how we perceive academic excellence (see Rethinking Academic Excellence). When a diverse variety of career tracks are perceived as proper, this improves job satisfaction and reduces pressure. We welcome the current efforts to implement this.
- Fewer short-term contracts. Short-term contracts should be kept at a minimum. Early career academics on short-term teaching contracts should be given meaningful teaching responsibilities that help their professional development and improve their CV and, if in any way possible, a chance to work on research.
- ‘Programmanormen’ (hour tabulations) are only helpful when they are realistic and meaningfully capture the time spent on various tasks. Hour tabulations should include ample time for ‘hidden’ but central tasks, such as outreach, strengthening their research community by organizing events, engaging in peer review, keeping track of the literature, grassroot initiatives (e.g. for Open Access, Open Science, etc.), and other forms of collegiality and academic citizenship. If not included in hour tabulations, academics are either incentivized not to engage in this or forced to do this in personal time.
- Reasonable support and expectations for relocating staff. Many staff members get little or almost no reduced workload when coming from abroad. A soft landing should be standard, and of reasonable duration. If staff members are asked to learn Dutch, they should be given the time and financial resources to do so.
Recommendations for larger, structural changes that we should start working on now:
- Shorter academic year. The university should aim for a stricter partition of the academic year across faculties and, where possible, a shorter academic year. More faculties should reserve longer periods between semesters that are strictly teaching-free, and more clearly demarcated for research and organizational tasks (at least a brief one in January and an extended one in June-July-August). During these periods there should be a stop in assessments, including exams and theses, which should be scheduled earlier in the semester.
- Structural changes to research funding to reduce the number of grant applications. We support the recent KNAW proposal for rolling grants, providing every researcher with a starting research budget, circumventing grant applications. This saves time, combats the unhealthy levels of competition and the reception of many rejections that unnecessarily demotivate researchers.
Note: this paper is also available as a PDF.
“Academic excellence” has become a key concept for evaluating academic merit. We have three main concerns regarding how excellence currently tends to be interpreted in academia, namely 1) the current assessment of excellence in terms of quantity rather than quality of output, 2) the so-called “superstar model” that favours those who obtain large grants, and 3) the narrow interpretation of academic excellence as individual performance, rather than team work. We outline several recommendations for Leiden University to address these problems:
- Encourage a shift from quantity to quality: supervisors and Institute boards should take care to evaluate excellence primarily through quality rather than quantity.
- Breaking with the narrow equation of academic excellence with acquiring research grants: promotion decisions and university communication should focus on substantive scientific contributions rather than grant awards.
- Academic excellence should be sustainable and therefore also measured through the process of knowledge creation, including academic citizenship: during performance and development interviews supervisors should pay attention to team efforts, academic citizenship, and sustainability.
"Academic excellence" is a contentious term in the current debates on the future of the Dutch higer education sector. In 2019 position paper Room for Everyone's Talent, Dutch academic organizations plead for a new system of recognition and rewards at Dutch universities and research institutes. They proposed to promote excellence along diverse academic pathways, including not only research, but also teaching, leadership, societal impact, and, for university medical centres, patient care. The discussion on recognition and rewards, which is also the subject of the recent position paper Academia in Motion of Leiden University's Recognition & Rewards Steering group, is an important step toward rethinking academic excellence, a key term for our university that has had Freedom to Excel as its strategic ambition for the past years.
Points of Concern
Young Academy Leiden (YAL) has three main concerns with how excellence currently tends to be interpreted in academia. First, the quality of academic work is too narrowly measured by individual output (e.g. the number of publications, or grants and awards), while largely ignoring the quality of the process of academic work (e.g. collaboration; curriculum development; academic integrity; transparency and accountability; and sustainability of the process). This emphasis on the quantity of output has resulted in an overly competitive system that poses risks to the health of academic environments, leading to high rates of stress and burnout, especially among young academics who are in the process of building their academic careers. Moreover, it may result in academics splitting their work in the maximum amount of papers possible whereas the quality would be greater if they were combined. Finally, narrowly focussing on output is not conducive to the slower, curiosity-driven science that is so crucial to fostering scientific progress – as rightly pointed out by the slow science movement. For example, Nobel Prize Laureate Peter Higgs expressed severe doubts that ground-breaking work like the identification of the Higgs boson would be possible in today’s research climate focused on quantity: “I wouldn't be productive enough for today's academic system.”
Second, it seems like universities do no longer simply aspire to deliver high quality teaching and research, but define ‘excellence’ in terms of ‘exceptional quality’. This has resulted in the so-called “superstar model”, which YAL rejects. In the present situation, a small group of scholars obtains a large share of the available research funding. A considerable proportion of luck is involved in obtaining grants under such highly competitive circumstances, but this luck then predicts being able to obtain future grants (the rich get richer). At the same time, a large group of junior scholars, particularly those on temporary contracts such as postdocs and PhDs, are dependent on the funds brought in by the “superstars”. Furthermore, obtaining such funding is valued increasingly as an end in itself, or a means to obtain even more funding, rather than a means to carry out good research and contribute to scientific progress. This is not a sustainable model for academic research funding.
A similar, equally worrisome development is now taking place in teaching, where the ability to acquire funding such as “teaching innovation grants” is increasingly used as a parameter for demonstrating “teaching excellence”. Concerned by this trend towards the “monetization” of academic performance, YAL underwrites the criticisms of De Jonge Akademie on the proposed new 2.5 million Euro prize for teaching that would be awarded to only a few individuals or a small group.
Third, while we recognize the continued importance of valuing individual merit, we contend that the current use of the term academic excellence has been too narrowly applied to individual research (and to a lesser extent teaching) performance. As an example, Leiden University’s 2020 Hall of fame is overly focused on individual prizes, awards, grants and other recognitions. When research is a team effort, this needs to be more appropriately recognized.
Striving for excellence means striving for high quality. Researchers should be trusted with having the best view on how best to produce high-quality work that is most suited to their skills and projects in their field(s) of expertise. Therefore, we recommend that:
- Institutes and supervisors put the main emphasis of evaluating research excellence on the quality of contributions to the respective field(s), instead of on the quantity of research output. We recognize that this requires careful implementation, to avoid favoritism based on arbitrary and vague performance criteria.
- supervisors and Institutes set reasonable, if any, expectations with regards to the number of expected publications, and instead prioritize quality of research.
To foster sustainable excellence, we should break with the current tendency of narrowly equating academic excellence with successfully acquiring research funding. Academic excellence should instead relate to knowledge creation and, where appropriate, dissemination. Therefore:
- Faculties, Institutes and individual researchers should treat grants less as achievements in themselves, and more as a means to enable scientific contributions. We furthermore recognize that national-level changes to research funding would be required to truly enable us to shift away from a focus on obtaining grant money as a primary objective.
- Faculty boards should ensure that promotions are based on substantive contributions to research and teaching, rather than mainly on obtaining grants.
- Leiden University’s communication officers should take care that internal communications within the university focus less on newly awarded grants and more on contributions in research and teaching - with or without grants.
Academic excellence should not only be measured in terms of individual output and impact but also in terms of the process of knowledge creation, including collegiality, good academic citizenship as well as the sustainability of this process concerning the researchers involved. Excellence can only be achieved through sustainable measures, including a better teaching-research balance, as also advocated by YAL, and a healthy work-life balance. Therefore:
- during performance and development interviews, supervisors should ask faculty to reflect on and describe how they have facilitated the research of others, and pay due attention to any work done within (interdisciplinary) research and teaching teams. Institute boards and supervisors should assure that recognition of team efforts does not turn into recognition restricted to the Principal Investigator of the relevant projects.
- during performance and development interviews, supervisors should ask faculty to reflect on whether the process of their research is sustainable: could one continue working in this way for many years without problems? Institutes should ensure that supervisors are equipped and informed about these new ways of evaluating research, teaching and outreach.
We recognize that these changes cannot be done in isolation and will require changes both nationally and internationally. Leiden University should aim to lead by example and be a force for positive innovation in this discussion.
Note: this position paper is also available as a PDF.
Interdisciplinary research that combines methods and insights of several established disciplines is crucial to address urgent and complex challenges. However, at present academic structures do not sufficiently motivate and support early-career researchers to engage in interdisciplinary research. We outline several recommendations for Leiden University to address this problem:
- University level: Create better structures for scholars from different disciplines to find each other and increase funding for bottom-up interdisciplinary research projects.
- Faculty and Institute levels: Enable and appropriately recognize and reward interdisciplinary teaching. Improve recognition of interdisciplinary publications by enabling the possibility to cross-list publications.
- Individual level: Interdisciplinary research takes time. R&D interviews should recognize this and provide space for a narrative that explains long-term interdisciplinary commitments.
Societal challenges and research puzzles are increasingly complex and multifaceted. This puts limitations on the theories, approaches, and methodological tools from one discipline. Interdisciplinary research that combines methods and insights of several established disciplines is therefore extremely important; not as a goal in itself, but as a means to address urgent and complex challenges. This is now widely recognized.
Promoting interdisciplinary collaboration is an important goal in Leiden University’s Institutional Plan (2015-2020). Currently, the university has various means in place to stimulate interdisciplinary science, such as the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus network, various interdisciplinary programmes (Stimuleringsgebieden), the Lorentz Center and the LUF Snouck Hurgronje grant. Nevertheless, from an early-career perspective, there are still a range of structural obstacles to engaging in truly meaningful interdisciplinary research or teaching.
Points of concern
The disciplinary focus of the organizational structure at Leiden University - and the academic world more broadly - makes it risky for early-career scholars to devote their time to interdisciplinary work. This has to do with the general structure of how output such as publications are recognized, how projects are funded as well as how the job market is organized. In recent years, there has been a push to offer interdisciplinary (PhD) programmes and teaching tracks at Leiden University, opening up opportunities for both staff and students to participate in interdisciplinary programmes. Inherent in this are both opportunities and drawbacks.
On the one hand, programmes for students, PhDs, and Early Career Researchers (ECR) who do not want to 'choose' a single disciple are given the opportunity to pursue an interdisciplinary career ‘from the ground up’. On the other hand, not all interdisciplinary programmes have this desired effect. ECRs with interdisciplinary backgrounds report increased scarcity of career opportunities. There is also the danger of gaining a bit of knowledge from different disciplines while lacking expertise in one research field. This translates into finding fewer suitable conferences and ranked journals.
For interdisciplinary teaching tracks, there are organizational and structural barriers that ECRs have highlighted. The mechanisms through which faculties organize and finance their teaching, make it hard to set up interdisciplinary courses and get the work done for these courses recognized within one’s own Institute as an equally valuable contribution to the Institute’s own education programme.
Beyond individuals pursuing interdisciplinary paths, ECRs increasingly work in interdisciplinary teams. In that context, they face the dilemma of publishing in journals unfamiliar to their own discipline and facing the danger of not receiving recognition within their own Institute for such publications. From the Institute’s perspective, such publications are difficult to value, due to disciplinary rankings of journals still dominating formal and informal research review evaluations. Additionally, using laboratory facilities of another faculty, for example, is often still a very complex affair.
Outside of structural constraints, interdisciplinary research has also become somewhat ‘fashionable’, which is further facilitated by funding calls that require interdisciplinary collaboration. Interdisciplinary ECRs fear that this stimulates projects that are interdisciplinary in name only. Since nominally interdisciplinarity is encouraged, sometimes researchers come to feel that calling their own work ‘interdisciplinary’ is yet another hoop to jump through or a top-down pressure to work on fashionable themes. This issue is most visible in many grants and scientific awards (including individual ones) that encourage applicants in general to highlight interdisciplinarity, but do not have mechanisms in place to actually stimulate bottom-up interdisciplinary activities. Given the high pressure to obtain such grants, this creates artificial interdisciplinarity, and hence a loss of research efficiency and negative publicity for the importance of interdisciplinary research. In addition, funding more generally for such initiatives is currently extremely limited (e.g., the LUF Snouck Hurgronje grant), difficult to access for early-career researchers (e.g., the NWA), and often still encouraging specific links between specific disciplines over others (see, e.g., this study).
In essence, doing sound, thorough, bridging, interdisciplinary work requires time, but does not lead to output that is judged more highly despite its often innovative character. We realize that the above points of concern highlight a range of issues that cannot be solved short-term or by Leiden University alone. However, in the following section we outline recommendations for steps that can be taken at Leiden University to facilitate a focus on high-quality genuinely interdisciplinary research.
The recommendations are structured to give input from a broader structural perspective down to individual-level support.
First, at the university-wide level, as ECRs, we are not in favour of facilitating interdisciplinary research and teaching through the creation of evermore institutes, affiliations and programmes. Such structures are costly, too rigid for the quick changes in the needs for interdisciplinary research, and they can have harmful effects on the careers of those embedded exclusively in such non-disciplinary structures. Efforts should rather go into helping members of different disciplines find each other and set up interdisciplinary research teams or new interdisciplinary courses, and to provide earmarked funding for such bottom-up initiatives. YAL is a successful example of an interfaculty network of young researchers. We encourage the university to extend this opportunity to other researchers who want to collaborate among each other as well as across hierarchies. The fierce competition for interdisciplinary grants, such as the LUF Snouck Hurgronje grant, shows that there is interest from the research community and investing in such grants offers a quick and efficient way to motivate more interdisciplinary research. In short, an interdisciplinary approach should emerge from a genuine scientific need, or enrichment of research, and not as a means of obtaining funding. On the one hand, funding that is only available for high-quality interdisciplinary research should increase. This should be assessed by panels with expertise in interdisciplinary research. On the other hand, in general funding applications, having an interdisciplinary component should not be automatically seen as adding value to the project.
At the faculty and institute level, interdisciplinarity should be fomented at an early stage; any teaching programme should aim for a baseline awareness of the work and methods in other disciplines. Interdisciplinary teaching should further supplement the disciplinary teaching, and not replace it. Yet, it should be seen as an essential supplementation. Interdisciplinary research should, where appropriate, also be communicated back to the established disciplines, so as to enrich them. An added benefit is that this can demonstrate the value of interdisciplinarity. As highlighted earlier, institutes sometimes struggle to make interdisciplinary publications count in the context of research review evaluations. It should therefore be possible to cross-list publications as output in multiple groups. Finally, for facilitating cooperation across disciplines, there are easy wins in offering no-cost or low-cost internal interdisciplinary lab analyses to offer spaces for conducting such research.
At the individual level, as we highlighted earlier, interdisciplinary research takes time. This has repercussions in a fast-moving, output-focused and short-term contract environment, where one may not have enough time to be working for three to four years on interdisciplinary output. Hence, R&D talks should recognize interdisciplinary efforts and publications without treating interdisciplinarity as a goal in itself. Staff members should be able to provide a narrative to explain any long-term interdisciplinary commitments, as interdisciplinary projects tend to take a lot of time and investment and often cannot be properly evaluated on a year-to-year basis.
Note: this position paper is also available as a PDF.
The COVID-19 pandemic affects society at large, disrupts university life and also has major consequences for early career researchers at Leiden University. Leiden University closed its doors for the first time since the Second World War. Nevertheless, work continues from thousands of home offices as academic staff scrambled to switch to online formats on short notice. YAL acknowledges the hard work of all colleagues at the university who made this transition possible.
The impact of the COVID-19 crisis on early career academics takes different shapes and sizes. Some researchers could not continue their lab work, others are very concerned about finishing their research project before their temporary contract runs out, many academics worked hard to move their teaching online and for quite a few these challenges were met while performing care duties at home.
This Young Academy Leiden (YAL) position paper focuses on the effects of the crisis on young academics at Leiden University and makes a series of recommendations. Our analysis and recommendations are based mainly on two sources: first, a young interfaculty lunch meeting held on the 7 May, which was attended by approximately 40 colleagues; second, an online survey organized by YAL in early May, in which over 200 early career academics from Leiden University participated.
Points of concern
Early career academics note various concerns. These can be divided under the themes of research, teaching, career, and personal issues.
Regarding research activities, a general distinction can be drawn between those colleagues which can relatively easily continue work from their home offices and those who cannot.
- Many report that teaching has taken priority over research when it had to be moved online. Of the survey respondents, 66 percent are concerned about their quality of research, whereas 33 percent are concerned about the quality of teaching.
- Research projects that depend on field, lab or other data-driven work are seriously impaired. Many projects experience delays and some have halted entirely.
- Deadlines for deliverables will not be met if not extended. The messages of NWO and ZonMW (the Netherlands Organisation for Health Research and Development) and universities regarding ‘tailored solutions’ is welcome, but also leads to uncertainty in the short term.
- New funding opportunities focussed on the pandemic with short application deadlines to apply sometimes add to more anxiety and stress in an already challenging work environment.
- There are concerns about new funding opportunities focussed on the pandemic and what this will mean for already strained regular research budgets. For instance, a number of charities that support medical research are currently suffering from lack of donations for non-COVID research, which will dramatically reduce funding sources for these researchers.
- Mentoring duties of young academics have increased at the expense of research time. They are providing additional and much-needed guidance and support to group members to keep them mentally healthy and motivated.
Online teaching will continue for the remainder of the academic year 2019/20. For the academic year 2020/21, hybrid forms of teaching are envisaged, where a return to physical teaching will take place where possible. Against this backdrop, researchers have the following concerns:
- A number of colleagues feel that the sudden move to online teaching and managing online classes is very demanding. Those with a teaching load that they could just about manage before the COVID-19 crisis hit, are now in danger of being overburdened.
- Teaching workgroups and seminars online is much more tiring than doing it face-to-face. Class discussions are less interactive, with students often turning their videos off. This hurts the quality of small group seminars or workgroups.
- Some young academics express concern about student course evaluations being scrapped in some faculties. While this is understandable for the current semester, it was seen as problematic by some, since the evaluations would be particularly useful for preparing for next semester’s hybrid teaching formats. Moreover, although YAL remains critical about using course evaluations for performance evaluations, they remain an important component for many such performance evaluations and job applications, especially for early career academics.
Many participants praised the support they had received from their supervisors/principal investigators. However, in terms of opportunities for professional development, both short and medium terms consequences of the pandemic were noted in our survey and during our lunch meeting. In essence, young academics are worried that the crisis causes a career gap of at least half a year which will have lasting detrimental effects for their professional ambitions.
- The effects of the crisis vary also across households. Young academics with children or other care duties are affected in particular by the crisis. As shown by our survey, 91 percent of respondents with children report reduced productivity during the lockdown (see figure above).
- Early career academics express concerns that gender imbalances may be aggravated by the crisis. The gender gap in journal submissions seems to have increased in some journals (although analysis for another journal shows a slightly different picture). While we do not observe clear gender differences in our own survey, we should be cautious that existing inequalities are not reinforced by this crisis, with many women taking on the burden of childcare and other domestic duties more than men.
- Grant opportunities have become more uncertain, which diminishes prospects for permanent employment or promotions even further, especially in the Dutch system.
- Conferences, which serve as important networking events and in some fields also as recruitment opportunities, have been cancelled.
In an environment where many young academics were facing challenges to keep a healthy work-life balance even before the COVID-19 crisis hit, many noted the additional strain that the pandemic has put on their personal wellbeing.
- There has been a great loss of productive working hours. Survey participants who suffered a decrease in productive working hours report a rather substantial decrease of 40 percent.
- In general, there is a sense that the boundaries between work and life become even more blurred than they were before the onset of the crisis. Many tasks tend to take more time than before, which leads to further encroachment of work on evenings and weekends. An increasing number of young academics might be heading towards an eventual burnout under the current circumstances.
- Young academics without a partner and/or family network in the Netherlands particularly experience loneliness due to the extended nature of the lockdown. Special attention should be paid to their well-being.
Addressing the above concerns is not easy. Young Academy Leiden recognizes the work within Leiden University that many have undertaken to address some of these concerns in the short term. As the corona virus is likely to continue to affect academic life in the foreseeable future, we offer the following recommendations in dealing with its consequences, particularly from the perspective of young academics:
- Young academics on non-permanent and especially short-term contracts should get clarity as soon as possible regarding their future job situation. Institutes should find ways to extend the contracts of temporary staff if possible and offer promotion or extension of contract if this is due as soon as possible, to avoid unnecessary uncertainty and hence stress in the coming months.
- Nationally, universities should petition the government, NWO and ZonMW to make available funds to extend the contracts of non-permanent research project staff, given the highly competitive nature of the job market and the serious effects the crisis has on this group. Like other sectors, the Dutch knowledge economy deserves strong financial support to protect vulnerable employees.
- Efforts should be made to ensure that postdoctoral researchers at Leiden University are integrated as much as possible in the work groups of their respective institutes and receive adequate guidance by their supervisors to continue their projects under the current circumstances.
- Hiring and promotion committees should take the short- and medium-term effects of the crisis into account in hiring and promotion decisions. This includes paying attention to gaps in research and other output that can be traced back to the lockdown period.
- Hiring committees should take into account the extent to which young academics were particularly disadvantaged, such as those with children at home. They should be aware of potentially increased gender imbalances, too. At the same time, it should be avoided that male academics who provide most of the childcare are disadvantaged.
- In Performance and Development Interviews (PDIs), supervisors should take into account the effects of the crisis on employees’ achievements. This includes restrictions on conducting research and the inability to attend conferences during the lockdown.
- Senior colleagues are encouraged to use their networks to help PhD candidates, postdocs and other colleagues in the pursuit of their professional ambitions.
- With a view to reducing stress levels, this is a time when academics should not be putting undue pressure on colleagues. The current situation is not “business as usual”. Colleagues’ home situation should be taken into account.
- It is important to focus on the university’s core business: teaching and research. More emphasis should be put on the continuation of research, as maintaining teaching should not be the sole priority.
- With online (or hybrid) teaching becoming a long-term situation, support for teachers in transforming their lectures to an online or hybrid format should be increased. A start would be asking the type of help that is useful to teachers.
- Course evaluations should be reintroduced as soon as possible given their importance as a means of feedback and for performance evaluations and job applications.
- While the university’s support, including from ICLON, was seen as positive, more assistance from the university regarding software problems is needed. IT support and digital environments should be further professionalized. The software solutions for synchronous classes are not reliable enough, particularly when internet connections are slow.
- The drastic changes caused by the crisis should also prompt a more profound reflection on the ways we have organized our teaching and conduct and disseminate our research. Returning to the status quo ante cannot be the goal. Instead, the university should strive to emerge from the crisis with a more sustainable, resilient, and technologically advanced way of working.
Note: this position paper is also available as a PDF.
The integration of research and teaching is a core value of Leiden University, laid down in its Institutional Plan: “In Leiden every researcher teaches, and every teacher also conducts research” (Institutional Plan, p. 19). Combining research and teaching is a requirement for a permanent position at Leiden University (Guidelines for the Appointment of Academic Staff, p. 3).
De Jonge Akademie has indicated strong support for integration (verwevenheid) of research and teaching (Uitgangspunten van de KNAW en De Jonge Akademie voor veranderingen in de financiering van het wetenschapssysteem, points 7-9), but also sees them too much as communicating vessels, with research time under pressure from increasing demands on education (due to rising student numbers).
Research indicates that early success in research funding (and therefore more research time) increases chances of success later on, which is known as the Matthew effect (Bol, De Vaan & Van de Rijt, PNAS). Various parties at the national level (VSNU, NFU, KNAW, NWO, ZonMw) have called for a new system of recognition and rewards for academic staff (Room for everyone’s talent). The balance between research and educational performance is one of the key aspects of their position paper.
Points of concern
Award of large external grants provides a relatively small number of researchers with much more time for research. We should avoid this leading to a two-tiered system with ‘haves’ who can spend a substantial part of their time on research (the ‘super stars’) and ‘have-nots’ who cannot.
There is a call for revaluing teaching performance and the introduction for a more teaching-intensive career path, but the room for this is hampered by the fact that most staff (certainly those without large grants) are already on a teaching-intensive path in terms of work hours, while being judged on research performance. The introduction of teaching-intensive career paths cannot mean even more work hours spent on teaching for these members of staff, because this will limit their ability to continue to combine research and teaching.
In addition, the structural dependence in some faculties on temporary teaching staff, such as docenten (adjunct lecturers without research appointment), is worrisome and at odds with the policy of combining research and teaching and the commitment in the Institutional Plan 2015-2020. At the same time, we recognize the essential role of these teachers in many (large-scale) programs. We are very concerned, however, about academics being stuck in a carrousel of temporary teaching contracts, rotating from university to university or having many small teaching positions in parallel.
- An increase of research time in the first money stream (eerste geldstroom) is unavoidable if we want to commit to research-based teaching at universities.
- The balance between research and teaching performance should be redrawn: ifteaching is a major part of the work, it should significantly feature in performance evaluations and career prospects.
- We reject the ‘super star’ model of science and embrace ‘team science’:
- We support the award of smaller research grants for a larger group of researchers, rather than large grants for only a small group.
- Staff on substantial research grants should contribute to education intheir Institute. Research time buyout arrangements should take this intoconsideration, for example by limiting this to a maximum of two-thirds ofworking time.
- The assistant/associate/full professor (UD, UHD, hoogleraar) career path shouldremain one in which research and teaching is combined at the individual level. Promotion can be done on both research and teaching merits (i.e., very good researchers with satisfactory teaching performance and vice versa).
- If docenten are a structural part of a faculty’s teaching needs, the possibility should be open to hire them on permanent contracts (and possibly promote them to Docent 3, 2 or 1). At the same time, their role and capacities should be carefully considered, as they cannot be expected to be research active themselves. For some teaching roles this is appropriate, but not for all.
- Whenever docenten are involved in the teaching of courses, the integration of research and teaching should be guaranteed at the team level, i.e. through supervision by a (research-active) course coordinator.
- The position of young academics (particularly docenten, both pre-doc and postdoc) is too often precarious and should be better protected. For example, small contracts (less than 0.5 FTE) and short contracts (less than 1 year) should be avoided, especially for those for whom this is their main occupation (those who teach one course next to a professional role elsewhere are in a very different situation).
The Minister for Education of the Netherlands, Ingrid van Engelshoven, plans to curb internationalisation in Dutch higher education. This concerns both efforts to attract students from abroad and the use of English as a language of instruction. Young Academy Leiden (YAL) is alarmed by this development, seen also in the wider context of the government's plans to carry out substantial funding cuts from the humanities and social sciences. We fail to see how a ‘Dutch first’ approach to higher education could be a solution to any of the pressing problems the sector is facing.
Nobody intends to abolish Dutch as an official language of Dutch universities. At the same time, no one can deny that Dutch academics have thrived in internationalised environments for centuries. This includes some of the most famous Dutch scholars and alumni of Leiden University. For example, Grotius’ Mare Liberum and Spinoza’s Ethica, ordine geometrico demonstrata were published in Latin. Huygens published mostly in French and Latin. They thrived because of internationalisation, not in spite of it.
Rather than framing language policy as an ‘either/or’ choice between Dutch and English, YAL strongly believes in a more balanced and better calibrated approach along the following lines:
- YAL experiences Leiden University as an international study and research environment. This is something to be preserved and cherished. So is the principle of academic freedom, which we see increasingly under attack by attempts of government to interfere, including in financial, thematic, and linguistic terms.
- Attracting foreign students to the Netherlands should not be seen as a matter of quantity, i.e. as a way of maintaining a university’s ‘market share’. Instead, internationalisation should be seen first and foremost as a matter of quality. The Dutch higher education sector is a magnet for the best and brightest from around the world looking for cutting-edge, yet affordable education. This is a key asset of the Dutch knowledge economy. The integration of international staff and students improves our university research and education, also for Dutch students.
- The right balance between Dutch and English in higher education needs further adjustment. There should be a choice for students to follow a (majority) Dutch language Bachelor program in their chosen field where appropriate. It is important that Dutch students learn to communicate in both Dutch and English at a professional level. However, these skills should already be acquired in school as much as possible. Therefore, also from the point of view of higher education, it is crucial that the government invest in primary and secondary level education and provide better working conditions for teachers.
- A knee jerk reaction which pivots to a ‘Dutch first’ approach comes with considerable downsides. It will inhibit efforts to attract top foreign students as well as researchers and instructors. This will also deprive Dutch students from the benefits of learning from leading international scholars in their own country. Moreover, lack of exposure to English as an academic working language will hamper the ability of Dutch students to go abroad to pursue successful international careers, to communicate their findings at conferences, to interact and collaborate with colleagues from abroad, and to write fluently in English, a language in which their results can be read by a broader audience and can spread and be used by other colleagues. A ‘Dutch first academia’ threatens to create an isolated environment, holding back scientific progress.
- Rather than an ‘either/or approach’, novel ways of optimizing language policy need to be explored. For instance, it makes sense to have some themes, modules or tracks in Dutch, especially when these cater specifically to the Dutch labour market, but to have others, in particular research-oriented, graduate courses in English. This would allow students – both foreign and Dutch-speaking – to have the best of both worlds.
- We welcome plans to facilitate and financially support Dutch language courses for international students to help them integrate into Dutch society. However, this should be on a voluntary basis and attuned to the particular circumstances of students. For example, it is important to differentiate between foreign students who pursue their studies in the Netherlands for several years with the intention of entering the Dutch labor market and those who come to this country to complete a highly reputed, internationally oriented one-year Master’s program.
Young Academy Leiden is greatly concerned about the recommendation in the Van Rijn report to reduce funding for the social sciences, humanities and medical sciences.
The Van Rijn report correctly identifies many of the concerning tendencies facing higher education, such as the increase in workload and a funding model that is excessively competitive. But the recommended reallocation of funding from the social sciences, humanities and medical sciences to the natural and technical sciences will have a devastating effect on the former fields, which are struggling themselves with excessive workload and increasing student numbers.
While the recommendation rightly responds to the problems that the natural and technical sciences currently face, the social sciences, humanities and medical sciences are dealing with similar issues. The work pressure is especially high in the humanities whereas the social sciences have the highest student to staff ratio (see figure 5 of the Van Rijn Report). The shortage of graduates from the medical sciences and social sciences is the second highest after the shortage from the natural and technical sciences (figure 6 of the Van Rijn Report). The recommended reallocation of funding can only worsen existing problems in these fields.
Young Academy Leiden stands squarely behind the value of interdisciplinary research. The proposed reallocation of funds pits the different sciences against each other and runs counter to the spirit of interdisciplinary and collaborative research. We welcome increased investment in the natural and technical sciences, which is indeed much needed, but reject doing so at the expense of other fields. The solutions to the most pressing challenges facing humanity are beyond the reach of any one particular discipline.
We fear that the reallocation of funds will especially affect young scholars by increasing job insecurity in a pivotal phase of their careers. As Young Academy Leiden we are therefore very disappointed by the response of the Minister of Education and the coalition parties in parliament. We call on them to revise their position before the cuts take effect. We will campaign against these cuts and will ask other parties, colleagues and alumni to join us in this effort.