Temporary contracts

‘I don’t see why we shouldn’t give teachers with no research time a fixed contract’

Illustration: Niels Bongers

Tim de Winkel, Ilse Josepha Lazaroms and Dick Zijp know what it's like to teach at UU. They love teaching but ended up hitting a wall. Each one of them responded in their own way. De Winkel joined forces with others to form a protest group, Actiegroep 0.7; Lazaroms quit because she doesn’t want to be part of a system that makes people ill; Zijp is not sure whether he should or should not want to work for a university that sees full-time lecturers as drudges.

The position of lecturers with no research duties, like Lazaroms and Zijp, appears to be improving a bit. The University of Amsterdam has promised to give some of its full-time teachers a fixed contract, while Leiden University has been forced to hire some of these teachers after losing a lawsuit. UU will have to defend itself in a similar case on July 6, brought by former lecturer Marijn Scholte, who demands a fixed contract based on the argument that his educational tasks were structural. But Utrecht University insists that teachers must conduct research as well if they want a fixed contract. "That is what sets us apart from the university of applied sciences”, argues the Executive Board. “We are a research university. Research and education are woven together. Our education is informed by relevant and recent insights from research.”

UU is trying to increase the number of associate professors

The ‘temporary teachers’ have always been there and will remain necessary to deal with increases in workload caused by surges in the number of students, teachers going on sick leave or sabbatical, and employees with a fixed contract "buying themselves out" of teaching duties to focus on research. The substitute teachers often receive a one-year contract. If they are still needed after that, they get another one-year contract. The term "disposable teacher" originated from this practice.

But gone are the days in which temporary teachers were only substitutes, and the position of lecturers without research time has become a topic of discussion. According to prognoses, the number of UU students will continue to rise for years to come. The pre-application data indicate that, next year, UU will once again attract more Bachelor’s and Master’s students than the year before. Since 2019, UU has been offering teachers a four-year contract with a minimal working week of 3.5 days (0.7 fte). This measure alleviates the workload of the fixed staff by eliminating the need to find and train new personnel. The university argues that this is an example of good employment practices, but it does not want to go any further than this. After four years, the temporary teacher has to leave the post and can only return as a teacher-researcher, a fixed position.Actiegroep 0.7 protests at Dom square on May 12. Marijn Scholte, who is suing the university, can be seen on the left of the picture. Photo: DUB

But when these teachers leave, they are only replaced by other temporary teachers. After being forced to pack his bags and go, Marijn Scholte noticed that the university was looking for two new teachers to perform "his" job. The university admits that an expansion of scientific personnel is in order, but prefers to invest in increasing the number of teachers who also conduct research (namely, associate professors and professors). To achieve this goal, the Executive Board is allocating 50 million euros so that faculties can employ more teacher-researchers on a fixed contract. They are also pinning their hopes on the 700 million euros recently promised by the Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, to strengthen university research. Dutch Universities have also agreed in the latest collective labour agreement (CAO in the Dutch acronym) to reexamine the position of temporary teachers.

A four-year contract is an improvement, but no more than that

“I don’t expect the funds earmarked by Dijkgraaf to really improve the position of teachers without research time”, sighs Tim de Winkel. After all, agreements to that effect have to be made by the universities as part of the CAO, according to the co-founder of Actiegroep 0.7. De Winkel is currently finishing up his PhD. Aside from researching, he used to teach at the Media & Culture programme. His first employment contract with UU was as a student assistant. After his graduation, he became a junior researcher at the Data school and started teaching in the Media & Culture programme. A couple of other contracts followed, and then he had to take a half-year break before starting his PhD.

Actiegroep 0.7 opposes the temporality of teaching contracts. “A four-year contract is an improvement, but no more than that. It shows that the university admits that the ‘disposable teacher’ construct is bad, only the adverse effects will be spread over a longer period of time. One batch of teachers is sent off only to be replaced by another. Who does that serve? Moreover, there would be not enough research work if all the necessary teachers would conduct research as well. There is a structural need for full-time teachers."

Tim de Winkel, from the protest group Actiegroep 0.7, participates in a demonstration in May. Photo: DUB

The adverse effects of the current system have ensured that young teachers are put through the wringer, according to De Winkel. “A lot of teachers are burned out and leaving the university disappointed.” He says all teachers are glad to work at the university. They hope to be appointed to the position of associate professor after four years.

“Teachers' tasks differ on a case by case basis, they often perform work that does not entirely fit their job description.” They teach Bachelor’s and Master’s students, in Dutch and in English, coordinate courses (which means a lot of preparation and streamlining), supervise Bachelor’s and Master’s students with their theses or internships, and write exams. Some of them even develop courses. “It doesn't take long to see that this job requires much more time than 0.7 fte.”

According to De Winkel, instead of complaining, these teachers work overtime, unpaid. They don’t dare to call in sick or ask for help when things are not going well at home. The situation is even harder for those with children, single parents, and foreign lecturers as they need the job to feed their children or keep their residence permits. Then, instead of getting that much-coveted position of associate professor, they are dumped after four years of work, says De Winkel. “Only to start the same process all over again at another university.”

 I thought: 'four years, oh my! I've never had this much stability'


De Winkel’s findings are confirmed by teachers Ilse Josepha Lazaroms, a Gender studies lecturer, and Dick Zijp, who teaches Theatre studies. The former has chosen to leave the university in September after taking time off due to a burn-out. “I don’t want to be part of a system that makes people ill.” Zijp has doubts about whether he would like to participate in a system that sees its teachers as “drudges”.


 Photo: DUB

Zijp is a typical ‘disposable teacher’: “I am now on my umpteenth temporary contract. In 2015, UU gave me two temporary contracts in quick succession. After that, I could not sign another temporary contract, so I worked at the University of Amsterdam for a year. After that, I came back to Utrecht. First for a three-year contract, then I had to leave for six months, returning in 2021. Now I have a four-year contract for 0.7 fte.” For all those years, Zijp was working as an external PhD candidate on a PhD thesis about cabaret and stand-up comedy.

Lazaroms, who has already obtained her PhD, also worked as a lecturer at several universities. “After obtaining a Master’s degree in Gender studies at UU, I worked abroad as a postdoc for eight years. In 2018, I worked as a teacher at UU for a year, with two temporary contracts. After that, I spent a year at Harvard. When I applied for a job as an associate professor at Gender studies in Utrecht, that vacancy had already been filled internally. I was then asked to become a full-time teacher with a four-year contract. I thought: 'four years, oh my,  I’ve never had this much stability!' So I said yes.”

‘This hierarchy between education and research is completely uncalled for’

The two wrestle with a university system that, as they say, still values research higher than education, has completely normalised working overtime and unapologetically kicks out impassioned teachers who are consistently evaluated well by the students. “This hierarchy between education and research is completely uncalled for”, sighs Lazaroms. “Teaching is a big part of a university. It's not just a matter of not having enough time, there is too little appreciation as well. UU’s complacent point of view is that all teachers can just work overtime for free. Certain groups are disproportionately affected by that. Those who care for children or the elderly, or those who have limited time or energy. I am a single parent, I can’t afford my life with a 0.7 fte position and I need the other hours in the week to complement my salary.”

"University no time" says the sign spotted in the national demonstration held on December 14, 2018. Photo: DUB

In Zijp's view, the university refrains from giving lecturers like him a fixed contract to keep up the illusion that research and education always go hand in hand at a research university, as opposed to a university of applied sciences. “But that hasn’t been the case for ages. Half of the departments are run by temporary teachers without research time. By making that position temporary, it looks as though we are merely substitutes.” Zijp has written an op-ed (in Dutch only) for the Dutch newspaper Trouw to raise awareness of this issue.

When the country was on lockdown and Lazaroms was confined at home with her daughter, working from home became more and more difficult — and she felt like her employer was not empathetic with her situation. “That's what broke me. I got sick.” Her GP advised her to stop working right away as she was almost burned out. She wrote a candid essay (in Dutch only) about that time for The Dutch Review of Books magazine (Nederlandse Boekengids), in collaboration with publisher HetMoet. “That whole period got me thinking. I really can’t afford to get sick again. I don’t want to be part of a system that takes advantage of people like that. It was a tough decision, but I’m leaving the university. I can use my energy elsewhere.”

Zijp is unsure about his future at UU. “How ethical is it to keep working in a system that treats people badly? As a teacher, you give a lot of yourself – I have my overtime to show for it. I am also losing out on other opportunities by working here, as I hope to become an associate professor. But I feel as though that loyalty is not reciprocated. You’re only ever told ‘maybe someday’ when you ask about your chances of getting a fixed contract. That makes me angry, I think these are bad employer practices. I do structural work. For example, I am now teaching the same course for the eighth time in a row. I'm almost finished with my PhD thesis and I've recently learned that my odds of getting an associate professor position are negligible. After this contract, I won’t be able to come back to Utrecht as a teacher. How grateful is that?”

‘A good employer gives them what they deserve: a fixed contract.’

According to Zijp and De Winkel, activism is the only thing left to do. Zijp wonders how much support they actually get from the fixed staff: “Most of the people who attended the demonstration in front of the Academy building on May 12 were young teachers. There aren’t many fixed staff members who consistently make their voices heard.” De Winkel: “But if we go on strike, most of the country's higher education will come to a halt. Then our importance will be visible.” Zijp, De Winkel, and Lazaroms all say they have a lot of respect for Marijn Scholte, who took the matter to court, even though neither Zijp nor Lazaroms envisage fighting the system like that. “0.7 is exploring that possibility as an organisation. 0.7 also wants to go to the court and pledge our support”, says De Winkel. “After all, he is right. A good employer doesn’t kick out employees who deliver. Rather, it gives them what they deserve: a fixed contract.”

With the hearing on the horizon, Utrecht University is careful about making statements, but it is sticking with its earlier position despite the increasing number of students, the challenging labour market, and the fact that the difference between a research university and a university of applied sciences has diminished not that the latter also conducts research, has lectors and the right to award PhD degrees. “The labour market situation is relevant to us, but it does not affect our position of prioritising a combination of education and research in a fixed position”, declares the Executive Board says. "Our education must be informed by relevant and recent insights from research. A university performs scientific research, students have to learn what performing research is.” The board adds that the university of applied sciences educates students with a focus on their future professions. “Just because universities of applied sciences also perform research, that does not mean that research universities should give up the interconnectedness of education and research.”

'One shouldn't give rise to expectations that can't be fulfilled'

UU considers itself a good employer for providing teachers with no research time with four years of stability and a minimal working week of 3.5 days, in which half a day is meant to be dedicated to their own development so that they have more experience with which to eventually apply to a different job. After those four years, the teachers are not allowed to return to the same position, not even after a break of six months and a day, which is nominally allowed by the collective labour agreement, as that would not be good employment practices, states UU.

“It should be clear to them that the contract is temporary”, the board says. “The time that is supposed to be dedicated to their development is meant as a preparation for the next step in their careers. It is important that the working environment does not give rise to expectations that can’t be fulfilled. For instance, a subsequent scientific career or a fixed position. That used to happen but it is not desirable.”

The board also says that though it may be possible, legally speaking, to re-employ someone after six months and a day, UU does not want to do it. “That resembles the construct of someone temporarily leaving the university before they are employed temporarily again. Because of the value of a clear perspective and not stringing employees along, we do not feel that those are good employment practices.”

De Winkel acknowledges these arguments but remains critical about “systemically allocating too little time to educational duties. If you want to keep within the time of your contract, you have to either skimp on research or education. Everyone I know decides to cut their research time. That is normalised. My explanation for that is that it apparently has become part of the academic culture. But that shouldn’t be the case. I truly see no reason why a full-time teacher shouldn’t have a fixed position, especially if they have a PhD because then they know how to conduct research. Not to mention that they need to immerse themselves in all relevant research to prepare for their course. A fixed position could then give them the time to write applications for funding. The only reason I can think of for us not being worth a fixed contract is that temporary employees are cheaper. But I truly hope that’s not the reason.”

What the staff members of the University Council consider good employer practices
​Combating work pressure is something the staff members of the University Council keep a close eye on. The Executive Board was complimented on its decision to allocate a 50-million-euro incentive to hire more people and reduce the workload for incumbent staff. But what do they think about UU's policy of only giving fixed contracts to teachers who also conduct research, now that criticism is mounting regarding the structural nature of full-time teaching positions?

Both the largest party in the council, Lijst Vlam, and the PhD party UPP believe that the current policy no longer holds. UUinActie thinks every position has to combine education and research of has to have enough time to develope yourself professionally.

Lijst Vlam: “With our current knowledge of labour shortages, we believe that, in the short and medium-term, UU cannot afford to keep relying on the PhD requirement combined with research time. It is important to look at what and how people contribute to academic education, based on the new frameworks set by the Recognition & Rewards programme, which also takes into consideration the academic contributions of non-academics. We also think it is self-evident that structural work requires a structural form of appointment.”

UPP: High-quality education is extremely important for our university. Continuity is key to guaranteeing consistent quality. Teaching is structural work, and that requires fixed contracts that offer the teachers some perspective, and allow them to acquire experience and grow in the job. It is very concerning that teachers are not allowed to return to the university after their contract ends, even after the waiting period approved by the collective labour agreement. Letting go of these teachers who already have experience in favour of new employees that still need to be introduced to the job is not beneficial for the quality of education, not to mention it is putting a strain on a group of employees who already experience excessive work pressure, by confronting them with uncertain job prospects. The university is always in need of good teachers and we do not think it is essential to have a PhD degree to be a good teacher. Furthermore, we would also like to add that the current conditions of teaching contracts should be improved. A full-time contract should be offered if the job entails a full-time investment."

UUinActie: “Our party stems from the protest group WOinActie, which calls for more permanent contracts with research time in order to relieve the workload at the associate professor level. An appointment must also be long enough to enable employees to do all the necessary work: there must be enough time for teaching, enough time to develop yourself professionally, and enough time to either conduct your own research or keep up with scientific developments and literature to conduct research that will enable them to become a university lecturer.”