Utrecht University wants to improve the registration of professors’ ancillary activities

Data on UU professors' ancillary positions must be better maintained and more easily accessible. Photo: DUB

Last week, Nieuwsuur reported that no research university in the Netherlands keeps proper records of their professors’ ancillary activities (report in Dutch only, Ed.) even though they are required to ask them about said activities. To ensure independent scholarship, side jobs cannot be in conflict with the research that the professors are conducting. Universities are also required to ascertain whether or not the professors are paid for their side jobs, and make this information publicly available for the sake of transparency. Article 15 of the Collective Labour Agreement for Dutch Universities states that this must be effected in the form of a ‘register’ (pdf).

According to Nieuwsuur, Utrecht University has no such register. “We do register ancillary activities”, says UU spokesperson Maarten Post. "We just didn’t have a centralised list of all the professors with ancillary activities and whether or not they are paid for them. This data is registered at the faculty level as it’s the dean who approves the professors’ ancillary activities.”

The spokesperson adds that UU initially sent Nieuwsuur a file (in Dutch, Ed.) with information extracted from all the professors’ profile pages on UU's website, which is public. However, the editors thought that was not enough as the profiles pages are written by the professors themselves. The TV show wanted to know what information had been recorded by the university and whether they get paid for these ancillary activities. “We did eventually provide that information”, says Post. Nieuwsuur reporter Siebe Sietsma confirmed this to be true. “However, we had asked the universities to provide the data by the end of November 2021. Most universities respected the deadline, but Utrecht only sent us the information in mid-February. By then, it was too late for us to process it.”

It took UU this long to submit the data because the university sent an e-mail to all 715 professors working at UU or UMC Utrecht, asking them to check the information on their known ancillary activities and to update it if necessary. “It turned out that not all the information we had was up to date, which is not a good thing”, admits Post. Now, Utrecht University wants to do something about that.

No central file
In response to questions from the current affairs programme, UU appointed a project manager in March to set up an automated registration system. “The goal is to be able to access all data on professors’ ancillary activities and whether they are paid or not, at the push of a button, as it were. Moreover, the information about the ancillary activities of each professor must be available on their profile pages on our website”, says Post. “We think it makes the most sense to publish this information on the profile pages.”

So there will be no central file on UU’s website listing all the professors and their respective ancillary activities. Such an overview would provide insight into things like the number of professors throughout the university who are involved with a certain organisation, institution or company. “Professors generally perform ancillary activities in organisations that are relevant to their discipline. Within a faculty, the dean is aware of all the professors who are involved with the same institution. Across faculty boundaries, there is less insight into that, but the probability that professors from different faculties are involved with the same institution is low, according to UU. “When the improvement project is completed, this information can be made available more quickly to deans and the Executive Board or to others who need this information", explains the spokesperson.

The question that has yet to be answered is how UU will keep the information on ancillary activities up to date. At present, if a professor wishes to take up a new ancillary activity, they must request permission from the dean. Additional jobs are updated in the annual Assessment & Development interview. currently, it is up to the professor to update their profile page themselves. “We hope that we can find a way to automate this by establishing the right links between systems, but we still need to figure out whether this is possible and, if so, what is the best way to do it.”

The situation is the same nationwide
Utrecht University is not the only institution struggling with its register of professors’ ancillary activities and interests, Nieuwsuur’s investigation revealed. The registers are incomplete and chaotic. After two years of questioning and even legal proceedings, Nieuwsuur's editors were able to look into the job registers of 14 universities and seven university medical centres. Only 4,200 professors were listed, even though there are almost 7,000 professors in the Netherlands.

Do the remaining professors not have additional jobs? Some of them do, a sample survey has shown. Besides, the data included in the registers are often outdated, incomplete or incorrect. Smaller institutions such as the Open University, the University of Twente and Tilburg University keep better records of their professors’ ancillary activities than larger ones, the TV show concluded. At Groningen University, more than half of the additional jobs register contains errors and omissions. The university’s medical centre does not even have a complete register of professors. However, it remains the professor’s responsibility to keep their own data up-to-date.

Shocked reactions from UNL and Dijkgraaf
UNL, the association of Dutch universities, which helped Nieuwsuur collect the data, reacts with shock. “This is unacceptable. We have to do something about it”, stated UNL president Pieter Duisenberg. “Transparency is the cornerstone. If you use your expertise elsewhere, everyone should be able to assess whether you’re independent or not.”

The association’s website currently still states that the universities have made considerable progress in this regard. By early 2021, the ancillary activities of 95 percent of all professors were available online, compared to 87 percent in 2017.

The Dutch Minister of Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf (D66), is worried about the results of the investigation. “Science cannot be linked to society if it’s not 100 percent transparent. I’m going to talk to the universities because I’d like to hear how they’re going to proceed.”

Former ministers also fall short
Even university board members and former ministers such as Jet Bussemaker and Jan Peter Balkenende do not have their records in order, according to Nieuwsuur. This is also true for former minister Ronald Plasterk.

The latter is particularly striking because, under his administration, it was stipulated that the ancillary activities of professors should be made public. That was in 2008. At the time, the association of Dutch universities opposed the idea, while the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) was in favour.

Since then, there have been regular reports on the inadequate registration of professors’ ancillary activities, leading to considerable indignation. In 2009, higher education news agency HOP looked into the matter and concluded that the situation was not good. In 2011, the cabinet once again stated that ancillary activities should be made public. The oldest opinion publication in the Netherlands, De Groene Amsterdammer, reported on this in 2014 (in Dutch only, Ed.)

In 2013, the then Minister of Education, Jet Bussemaker, refused to establish a national register  and in 2015 she put the problem into perspective: some things were private and therefore didn’t need to be registered (both articles available in Dutch only, Ed.)

In recent years, there have been many signals that professors’ ancillary activities can let to integrity violations. Recently, newspaper De Volkskrant and University of Amsterdam magazine Folia published articles on conflicts of interests involving professors of tax law and fiscal economy. An earlier investigation by Nieuwsuur into professor Dimitry Kochenov of the University of Groningen led to latest follow-up investigation.