Work pressure still too high at universities, says Labour Inspectorate

Students raising awareness about the heavy workloads of the teaching staff during the opening of the last academic year. Photo DUB

Protest movement WOinActie, which stands for a better work environment at higher education institutions, has gathered more than 700 complaints about work pressure. In January 2020, thanks to the help from trade unions, those complaints landed on the desk of the SZW (Labour Inspectorate), which started an investigation on the subject.

The investigation has now been completed. Their conclusions: things are not going well, indeed. Universities' current plans to combat high work pressure are of little value, as they focus too much on the individual and fail to tackle the source of the problems. According to the Inspectorate, universities are just addressing the symptoms, nothing else. 

Training courses
For example, they're offering workshops on work pressure, but not really measuring their effect.  Furthermore, universities often limit themselves to arguing that underfinancing is one of the most important the causes of work pressure, leaving their own policy out of the equation.

For WOinActie, there's an imbalance between the value placed on education and that placed on research. In the Inspectorate’s view, universities' current plans to combat high work pressure show no sign of addressing this particular issue. 

Additionally, universities are not paying enough attention to the consequences of discrimination and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. In essence, they're just react to incidents of discrimination and harassment. At some universities in the Netherlands, it is not even clear who is actually responsible for dealing with reports, and support to the victims is inadequate.

What about overtime? WOinActie says Dutch universities are exploiting their personnel. But it was clear from the outset that the Inspectorate couldn't do much in that regard. In the Working Hours Act, an exception is made for academics (as is for firefighters, among other professionals). Once their salary exceeds a certain limit (three times the minimum wage or more than 64,000 euros full-time), the Working Hours Act no longer applies, regardless of profession.

But that does not mean that the problem of work pressure can be brushed aside. Both universities and the Ministry of Education are going to hold discussions on the topic. The Labour Inspectorate is keeping abreast of developments, in addition to talking to WOinActie every six months.

“Universities have to cope way-too-high work on a daily basis”, says a spokesman for the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, VSNU. “In the new collective labour agreement, reducing work pressure is one of the priorities for universities and trade unions.” The new CAO establishes, for example, that private time needs to be safeguarded and that employees’ work must be appropriate to the scope of the appointment.

Moreover, the universities point out that the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) is drawing up a guidance document regarding harassment and inappropriate behaviour in the academic world. They also have high expectations of the independent ombudspersons they're currently in the process of appointing.

As for the rise in the number of complaints about discrimination, VSNU ascribes it partly to the increased attention universities are paying to the fundamental problems in this area. Lastly, universities reiterated that they would like to receive an extra 1.1 billion euros a year to help reduce work pressure.

In response to the Inspectorate’s investigation, Professor Remco Breuker of WOinActie tweeted that universities have been repeatedly reminded of this issue in recent years. He admits that he is both an idealist and a pessimistic cynic. “My two halves are not in agreement about what works and what doesn’t, only that something has to be done.”