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30 mei 2023

Casual UvA re-activates the strike

In the spring of 2022, more than a hundred lecturers, organized under the banner of Casual UvA, laid down their marking work and joined a strike. Their demands were simple: 1) permanent contracts for structural work, 2) opportunities for professional development and 3) workload transparency.

After several weeks, the University of Amsterdam presented a new teachers policy that was meant to address the core concerns and frustrations of its lecturers. In response, the lecturers agreed to suspend the strike, hoping that the new policy would be as effective and generous as the university's central management claimed it would be.

Unfortunately, for many, the new policy has turned out to be a deception. That is why today, Casual UvA is lifting the suspension, meaning that the marking strike that was temporarily 'on hold', will again be reinstated. What is going on? Has nothing changed?

Permanent contracts for structural work

One of the key demands behind the original strike was that structural work - work that is not susceptible to fluctuating demand (in this case mainly fluctuating student numbers) - is performed on permanent contracts - contracts that do not automatically expire after several months or years.

For many years, junior lecturers ('werkgroepdocenten', or in the HR jargon of the university: "Docent 4" or 'D4-lecturers') have been given temporary contracts of varying lengths, ranging form several months to four years. That means that even when they perform well, and even when the work they do still has to be done, they are 'let go' after this time, and replaced with new lecturers.

The promise of a new teachers policy

The new teachers policy promised to address this situation in the recognition that many D4-lecturers were in fact performing tasks that belonged to a higher job profile (in the HR jargon of the university: 'D3'). In receiving the correct profile, these lecturers would be awarded permanent contracts.

Although some D4-lecturers have indeed been promoted to their correct profile, and have therefore received the permanent contract they deserve, the far majority of D4-lecturers remain D4 and are still hired on a temporary basis, even when most of them (still) perform structural work.

Arguments for temporary contracts

To people outside academia it might come as a surprise that this is still something that has to be fought for - permanent contracts for structural work - so let's have a look at some of the arguments that are made in defense of the current situation.

Training position

Consider for instance the idea that D4-lecturer is a 'training position', that offers such valuable experience that it should be available to as many (young) people as possible: giving people permanent contracts would instead rob the next generation from the opportunity 'to have been a D4-lecturer'. Keeping the contracts short maximizes the throughput.

Sometimes this argument is accompanied by some vague reference to PhD positions: 'aren't they also temporary 4-year positions'?

What is not clear in this argument, is why this logic should apply the job of D4-lecturers, and not to others. The municipality of Amsterdam offers new employees a clear path towards a permanent contract. Shouldn't more people get the chance to work for the municipality? And why does no one point to existence of 4-year PhD positions in this case?

Keeping knowledge up to date

Another argument that is often made, is that short contracts ensure that D4-lecturers have 'up to date' knowledge of their field: after all, most of them just graduated. This not only grossly under-appreciates the value of the experience of older D4-lecturers, it also puts the burden of 'keeping the work-force up to date' on employees: in contrast to any other organization, the university is not paying for the upkeep and development of its human capital.

Realist nonsense

Self-proclaimed Realists might read this and think:

  1. Apparently being a D4-lecturer is simply attractive enough for universities to run such unattractive HR policies without empty vacancies.
  2. Academia is a competitive pyramid: there simply is no room for all D4-lecturers to have a full-blown academic career.

Starting with the latter: some D4-lecturers do have the ambition to climb the pyramid, and they deserve all the support they need. But many of them are happy where they are: they take pride in what they do, they enjoy it, and they are good at it. Many of them would still like to professionally develop of course. For instance by improving their teaching skills, or in connecting to their field of expertise. But they mainly care about the students, and they don't need to become the next academic big shot. In that sense the university is not unlike any company: not everyone wants to be the CEO, and the fact that there are fewer CEOs than office workers does not mean that the latter need to be fired after four years.

Moving on to the former: the simple fact that a job is beautiful and rewarding is not a valid reason to accept unfair working conditions. In fact, if it is indeed a matter of supply and demand - of an employer using the beauty/desirability of a job to hire cheap high quality employees - it is only fair for those employees to play the same game, and organize themselves to improve their bargaining position.

For instance by organizing a strike.

Tags: blog english politics

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