On the academic hunger games

As part of an academic training course that I recently completed (the Senior Kwalificatie Onderwijs aka Senior Teaching Qualification or STQ), one of the assignments was to reflect about one problem that affects the Dutch higher education system and how would I tackle it if I were the rector of my university. I though that an abridged version of this assignment could be a nice first entry of this blog, so here it is.

The marked increase in student numbers in the Dutch higher education system in the last two decades have lead to an (non proportional) increase in the number of faculty positions, that is, in the number of staff that in principle are expected to carry out a research program. Note that most TT positions have as condition for tenure applying and securing external funding, so this is really not an option. Unfortunately, the fact that the figures for government-funded research have not changed much in the same period, coupled with the situation that in most universities there are no structural funds to carry out research programs, means that the success rates of competitive funding applications is plummeting. Currently, the situation is becoming ridiculous: in the last call for the NWO Physics Projectruimte, the success rate was lower than for the already very competitive European-wide ERC Consolidator grant. In other words, even projects where one asks for one PhD student plus some running budgets have now success rates at the 10% level. Under these conditions, there is growing evidence that currently researchers spend similar or even more time writing grant applications that carrying out the actual research, resulting in a situation where universities are effectively throwing away precious resources while receiving very little in return.

As the number of students that join higher education in the Netherlands has markedly increased in the last 20 years, the total contribution that the universities receive per student has went down by around 25%.

While these low success rates in competitive funding applications represent a global problem in higher education, the fact that the Dutch university system has limited or no structural research funds only exacerbates this situation. In other European countries this is not the case, for example, in the United Kingdom there are “rolling grants” that are renewed every few years that that provide structural funding for PhD students and postdocs within given research group. Moreover, within the Dutch research ecosystem, university staff are in marked disadvantage as compared to for example group leaders at NWO institutes: since the latter do not have (or have much less) teaching and management responsibilities, they can devote more quality time to write competitive grant applications. All these factors pile up, and combined with the already high work pressure are leading the system to a position which might not be sustainable in the medium and long term, at least if the goal is to maintain or even improve the outstanding quality level of the Dutch scientific research.

In these circumstances, how can overworked university staff find time and energy to, in addition of their various other duties, also aim to innovate and excel in education? For instance, my own university, the VU Amsterdam, in their vision document states that they have in mind “a vision of education which places a strong emphasis upon investigative learning. Asking the right questions is at least as important as giving the right answers. The close links between our education and research activities keep the quality of education high and ensure that students are constantly being challenged intellectually.” While I fully agree with these ambitions, however I believe that both the high work pressure in general and the (ever-increasing) need to apply for competitive funding with (ever-decreasing) success rates in particular hamper seriously this vision. For example, developing and implementing innovative education methods that succeed in activating the students and promoting them to become independent learners takes time and effort, commodities that are scarce in the current environment of higher education.

How to move forward? This is a thorny problem without easy solutions, and clearly requires coordinated action among all the Dutch universities. Let me however suggest some possible strategies in order to at least reduce the severity of this problem.

Universities, either at the faculty or at department level, could allocate some structural funding for research, for example from the first money stream (in the case of successful education programs) or from the overheads coming from large NWO and ERC projects. This structural funding could be distributed among departments following some model, where for example the management teams distribute PhD positions following an internal, low-hassle, application process. This seems to be one of the suggestions of the infamous Van Rijn report, namely to transfer fundings from the second money stream (now allocated purely on the basis of competitive application) to the first money stream (more structural, in some sense).

Provided the involved researchers agree, another option could be the departments could also allocate a fraction of personal grant funding to other researchers who have not been successful in similar grant application but whose research project has been evaluated very positively: a model that fosters cooperation between academics, in particular colleagues, rather than competition.

Moreover, In the same way that in a company the people that work in the R&D department are different than those that work on sales or in communication, not everyone in the university should excel (and devote the same amount of time) both in teaching, research and management. In this respect, the creation of prestigious, teaching-oriented professorships, as well as a well-defined career track for those academics that aim to focus in teaching excellence would achieve two important goals. First, to reduce the large teaching load that affects most departments: someone working say 90% of her/his time in teaching is going to me more efficient than three academics spending each 30% of their time (due to scalability, more time for planning and implementing feedback, better incentives to develop innovative teaching methods, …). Second, to reduce the competition in research funding applications and increase success rates even for fixed resources. This is also something that has been advocated by the VSNU, and the UvA Science faculty is also moving towards this system.

Thirdly, both systematic studies as well as ample anecdotal evidence demonstrate that the current model for research funding allocation has a very strong stochastic component (sheer luck!) as well as a number of biases (against women, in favour of prominent institutions against PIs that have not obtained big grants before, …), so that they are not necessarily a proxy to identify the most promising research programs. The Dutch universities and NWO should work towards modify the model in a way that is much less burdensome for researchers (as well as for external referees and civil servants) and that it reflects better its intrinsic limitations (for example, by randomising grant funding allocation for research projects that satisfy all the requirements described in the call for proposals and satisfy some given quality threshold). Increasing the success rate in competitive grant funding and ensuring a most unbiased selection will be extremely helpful in reducing the work pressure of the staff from our universities.

I believe that this is a genuine problem that seriously hampers the long-term excellence and viability of Dutch research and higher education system. If we keep fostering aggressive internal competition between university staff and researchers, rather than promoting collaboration, we are clearly shooting ourselves in the foot. While we are not going to solve these complex problems any time soon, starting to take actions in some of the directions outlined above could already improve the general climate and show that we are taking this severe problem into consideration.

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