Reimagining the University from Below
"Decades of budget cuts and market incentives are threatening the role of universities: to stimulate critical thinking," argues Judith Naeff. It is time that staff and students take action together.
At the opening of this academic year 2021-2022 I had the incredible honour to deliver the opening lecture to the new cohort of first year students of the BA International Studies. The lecture was titled “Reimagining the University” and in it, I posited that the university’s role as a space for reflection and critical thinking is increasingly under pressure. With this blog, I would like to repeat some of the arguments of that opening lecture, addressing some of the main challenges contemporary higher education is facing, but also to call upon staff and students to resist and actively build a better, more equitable university - together and from below.
In my lecture, I argued that the role of the university is not only to produce and transfer knowledge, but also to stimulate critical thinking. The development of students into critical citizens could be seen as a modern-day, more inclusive form of Bildung - a project of self-realization through the cultivation of a cultured and civilized selfhood. Citing thinkers from Immanuel Kant to Theodor Adorno, and from WEB Dubois to Donna Haraway, I concluded that while ideas on what being critical means vary throughout history, all of these thinkers agree that critique entails more than a technical skill. Being critical requires spiritual fortitude, magnanimity, honesty and decency. “Let the phones be smart, we have got to be wise, and compassionate, and self-critical” in the words of Cornel West. But this cultivation of a compassionate and critical disposition is increasingly under pressure.
Austerity & marketization
After years and years of budget cuts, an independent consultancy firm concluded last year that Dutch higher education suffers a structural lack of 1,1 billion euros to meet the targets set by the Ministry of Science and Culture. Dutch universities do surprisingly well, mostly because their staff has continued to deliver top quality research and education, despite having fewer and fewer paid hours. In the last few decades, this lack of centralised state funding has been managed by introducing market competition for student fees and external grants.
In a recent online lecture organized by Casual Leiden, Wesley Shumar discussed the marketization of higher education. He linked the commodification of US universities to larger shifts in the political economy since the 1970s. As the ideology of business was introduced to higher education, faculty are increasingly seen as workers, and administrators as managers. The workforce has to report to management. This corresponds with a stratification of the labor force, with tenured, research heavy faculty at the top, followed by a layer of part-time teaching faculty (55-65%), and another layer of full-time teaching faculty with a higher teaching load and less stability.
In Europe, universities still largely rely on public funding, but we can see a similar logic playing out, which Shumar describes as marketization rather than commodification. For example, instead of research time for all lecturers, academics compete for a limited number of research grants. Likewise, funding for education is coupled to the number of students universities manage to attract as well as the pace at which students receive their diplomas. Generating funding from private partners is also encouraged and rewarded. But it leads to a situation where market interests limit academic freedom. Recently, it appeared that at the fiscal law department only one Professorial position is still publicly funded. One is left to wonder whether our fiscal law department is there to critically analyze past, current and future fiscal law, or to help businesses find loopholes and avoid paying taxes.
The idea of these market incentives is that universities will improve the quality of their research and education in order to get more funding. But the result is that universities invest in workshops such as “competitive grant writing”, in glossy marketing campaigns to attract more students, in lobbying for corporate collaborations. Cleaning, security, and canteens are increasingly outsourced to companies that often offer much worse labour conditions to their employees. Universities flaunt their prestigious grants and excellency programmes, while cheap tutors with no research time are kept on temporary contracts. This layer of academics on contracts of often 0.7 fte or less has grown exponentially, especially since the introduction of the research grant system in which lecturers awarded the scarce grants of NWO and ERC need replacement for their teaching. Hopping from one teaching gig to the next, they spend all of their time preparing new courses and grading piles of papers, leaving no time for research or publication and therefore only lowering their chances to move on to a permanent University Lecturer position. If they do find the time to research and write, they do so outside of working hours, effectively working for free in the desperate hope to pull themselves out of the vicious circle. It is a situation that does not improve, but decimates the quality of both education and research. Competition stimulates dispositions of envy, opportunism and secrecy, thus getting in the way of modes of compassion and generosity that are so vital for a flourishing academic community.
A competitive working environment exacerbates the hierarchical structure of the academic institution and makes the most precarious staff vulnerable to forms of misconduct such as bullying and harassment. Staff members that are on temporary contracts often lack the (institutional) power to resist or report transgressive behaviour, as they fear the potential consequences for their career. It has led to scandals in the press and reports of regular intimidation. When staff do report, they are often ignored or their complaints are minimized. In an increasingly polarized public sphere where academics regularly face intimidation, universities should provide unconditional support for all employees.The recent agreement by the VSNU is a step in the right direction, but the question remains whether universities can live up to their promises if they fail to address the structural inequalities and mishandling of misconduct within its organization.
What can we do?
What we can do is acknowledge that the issues discussed above do not impact one group. They are detrimental to the functioning of the university as a whole. The truth is that business as usual is only sustainable through the overwork of permanent staff, the exploitation of temporary and outsourced workers, and the worsening of students’ education. This must end, and only mass mobilisation and collective work stoppages can get us there. Across the world, students and workers are coming to the same conclusion. Students are occupying, university staff are striking, and together they are taking to the streets, making demands for a better, different university, from governments and managers alike. As students and staff, we need to continue mobilizing at both the national level - to pressure the government to correct the huge funding deficit instead of announcing new cutbacks in the budget of 2021-2022 - and on the local level - to put pressure on the university boards to end casualization, to end structural overwork, and to ensure a safe working environment. University boards should stop paying lip service to the serious complaints raised by students and staff and start taking serious steps to bring about meaningful change.
It is time we all stop investing all our time and energy in making our individual position in the system more bearable, and instead recognize that we are all on the receiving end of the market logic that is hollowing out our institutions - students and tutors, PhDs and UDs, and also Professors and managers. Join Casual Leiden, WOinActie, XCC Leiden, 0.7, Actiegroep Wangedrag, #NietMijnSchuld or Leidenvoor14 and make a difference. Be part of the academic community that struggles from below for a more equitable university where critical thinking can truly thrive.