portrait of Delta columnist Bob van Vliet.
Bob van Vliet: “The fact that almost everyone is regularly at their computer in the evenings and weekends to answer emails or write applications is not acceptable.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

The pressure on teachers and researchers at universities is not an individual personal experience, but a structural problem. Acknowledge that, writes Bob van Vliet.

Lees in het Nederlands

In my Faculty’s new multiannual plan, I read that we got through the last few years ‘without overloading our staff’.

It made me think of the colleague who tweeted that he was happy that it was Monday again. After 20 hours of working in the weekend, the real work week feels like a breeze, he wrote. Apparently this is normal for him. A couple of weeks later he wrote that he had not had a free weekend in months.

It made me think of the colleague who, in a meeting on a couple of information documents, promised that he would make the agreed changes and publish them that evening. He said this as though it was the most normal thing in the world.

It made me think of the colleague who is trying to support a prof in organising his course. But this prof hardly has the time to discuss her proposals. He does not even have the time to help prepare his own course.

It made me think of our PhD candidates who, almost without exception, have to continue working unpaid after their appointment had ended to finish their dissertation. It made me think of all the people that I see at lunchtime eating sandwiches while hunched over their keyboards. And so on.

‘The workload is currently not manageable and acceptable’

It made me think of the research (in Dutch) by WOinActie, AOb, and FNV that shows that teachers and researchers at Dutch universities do an average of 12 to 15 hours a week of unpaid work. And of the harsh words of the Arbeidsinspectie (Labour Authority) whose own research concludes (in Dutch) that policies at universities to deal with workloads are completely inadequate. The problem is put at the door of the individual employees, states the Labour Authority, instead of the structural causes of the problem being recognised and addressed.

At TU Delft, this is also not sufficiently recognised. If you state that the goal is to ‘keep the workload manageable’ or ‘acceptable’, as my Faculty does, you are implying that it is currently manageable and acceptable. It is not. If you write about the ‘workload experienced by staff’ or the ‘excessive workloads of individual teachers’, you are implying that the problem is with the individual, or even that it is only a problem for some people. But it is neither.

Of course I understand that these things are not easy to solve. And there are some good and concrete proposals in that multiannual plan. And it will always be the case that teachers and researchers will think about their research or teaching at home on the couch, in the shower, or while out on a  walk. Many of us do this work with great conviction, after all.

But the fact that almost everyone is regularly at their computer in the evenings and weekends to answer emails or write applications is not acceptable. And if we ever want to bring about real, structural change, we must start by recognising – and thus writing down – that this is a big and structural problem. ‘Systematic overexploitation’, as Ingrid Robeyns rightly says (in Dutch).

Bob van Vliet is a lecturer at the 3mE Faculty and is specialised in design education. Reactions are welcome via B.vanVliet@tudelft.nl.