[Column] A false start

Was the game with which TU Delft opened the academic year a secret attempt at radical satire? Where is the debate at this overworked university, asks columnist Bob van Vliet.

(Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

A friend of mine is Assistant Professor in a Tenure Track. “What? Do you still write?!” someone recently asked him, when they discovered he did not mostly leave the writing of papers to PhD students. Apparently writing project plans and grant proposals is more important than actually producing knowledge.

In any case, writing seems to be something for the evenings, weekends, and vacations. On average, researchers work 25% more hours than in their contracts, the Rathenau Institute determined. PhD students’ workload is literally dangerous.

I myself have to be extra careful of overwork at the moment. Last year, my heart briefly stopped working (in Dutch) and I haven’t fully recovered yet. Before the summer break, I realised that I was doing more than was healthy and I had to ask a colleague to take over some of my responsibilities. But I found this difficult, especially as I knew that she already regularly works in the evening.

‘Critical analysis and debate are not seen as inspiring’

At the start of this academic year, students at Utrecht University and elsewhere protested against their teachers workloads. In effect, one fifth of their education is being paid for by the unpaid hours of stressed scientists. These students realise that this is lowering the quality of their education. And that it is hardly a sustainable way of working.

The AOb and WOinActie organised bike rides to draw attention to the fact that many of those hard working teachers nonetheless only get temporary contracts.

Three leaders of WOinActie – Rens Bod, Remco Breuker, and Ingrid Robeyns – published the analysis behind their protest in a Dutch book entitled ‘40 stellingen over de wetenschap’ (40 theses on science). Universities are being increasingly organised like big hierarchical corporations, they write, while good science and critical thought require a much more democratic, bottom-up organisation. More autonomy, less competition and, last but not least, adequate funding.

The opening of the academic year is traditionally a time for the academic community to look ahead with a broader perspective than the daily grind. Throughout the country, speakers from outside the university are invited to share their vision on science and society. Researchers, artists, and politicians enter into the discussion.

But not in Delft. For TU Delft, the goal of the event is primarily ‘to inspire and warmly welcome prospective students’. It appears that critical analysis and debate are not seen as inspiring, because these are usually not on the programme. This year was no different. The ‘opening’ this Monday consisted of an online game. With prizes.

This is quite appropriate, actually. Because if anything characterises the overworked university of today, it is competition. Perhaps the game was a secret attempt at radical satire?

I’m beginning to feel like I am writing the exact same column every other month. But I continue to find it tragic how little our management seems to care about organising public debate. This year in particular was an excellent opportunity for an opening that went further than promotion.

Read that book by Bod, Breuker, and Robeyns. It is in Dutch, I’m afraid. But that was what I found inspiring.

Bob van Vliet is a teacher at the Faculty of  3mE. Before, he was a teacher at Industrial Design Engineering and Architecture and the Built Environment.

Bob van Vliet / Columnist

Columnist Bob van Vliet

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