‘Disposable teacher’ vs UU: Was he doing structural work or not?

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Angry, Marijn Scholte decided to sue his former employer, Utrecht University. The former temporary teacher wants his job back, he told DUB in an interview. His lawyer, Twan Kersten, argues that the work he performed for four years was structural — therefore, he should have gotten a fixed contract, even though he was a full-time lecturer without research time. Supporting this argument is the fact that the university opened up two vacancies to do the exact same job he used to do. “There is a permanent need for full-time teachers,” he says, alleging that UU is a bad employer. “Teachers are happy to have a job at all. That keeps an undesirable system in place.”

Utrecht University reacts that Scholte has no right to a fixed contract because the work that he performed was in fact temporary. Temporary teachers, the university argues, are needed to deal with the fluctuating number of students each year. Moreover, it is UU's policy to only give fixed contracts to academics who combine teaching with research, such as those employed as associate professors. UU lawyer Sophie Wierenga-Heintz says that, in the meantime, the faculty where Scholte used to work has hired more associate professors to diminish the need for temporary teachers. Lastly, she states that UU is not a bad employer, as it never raised “false expectations”.

One of the teachers that came to the court to show their support for Scholte is Luzia Heu. As an associate professor, she does have a fixed contract at UU. But, according to her, everyone suffers from the number of temporary contracts. “We're constantly having to train new people which increases the amount of work for all teachers,” she says.

Teacher Jasper Steggink is also closely following the case. He says he and Scholte are on the same boat. Steggink, who had three temporary contracts in three years, was also forced to leave Utrecht University. “I knew when I started that I would get a temporary contract, and I saw it as a good opportunity. But, today, I know the system behind it and I have realised that this is a dead-end for me”. Steggink hopes the lawsuit will generate a “structural change”.

Getting louder
The case follows national protests by temporary teachers, which have been getting louder and louder. They feel disposable for being sent away after having worked hard, not to mention they resent the uncertainty of having to jump from one university to another, as most universities in the country uphold the policy of not giving fixed contracts to temporary teachers. They live from contract to contract.

Still, universities cannot go without this type of teacher. This type of contract is usually employed when the number of students rises, when permanent teachers get ill, or when they reduce the number of hours dedicated to teaching in favour of conducting research. In 2019, Utrecht decided to give these teachers a four-year contract. The idea was to give them a bit more certainty and alleviate the workload for permanent staff, constantly having to recruit and train new teachers. “A four-year contract is an improvement, but no more than that”, Tim de Winkel from protest group Actiegroep 0.7 stated to DUB.

In the meantime, the University of Amsterdam has decided to give fixed contracts to some full-time teachers and Leiden University is considering the same. UU, however, is sticking to its policy and is allocating additional funds to hire more teachers who also perform research. However, the university admits in a statement that “temporary teachers will remain a necessity", referring to the “substantial fluctuations in the influx of students at the Faculty of Social Sciences” and “variations in availability” of teacher-researchers, due to them temporarily not being able to teach as much after obtaining a research grant, for example.

The judge will get the final say. He summarised the dispute between Scholte and UU by sauing: “Does this constitute structural work? One party says 'yes', the other says 'no'. The law can be that simple sometimes.” The ruling is expected to be announced on August 3.