News - April 6, 2017

Share the workload differently?

Wageningen scientists combine education with research. Thanks to fast-growing student numbers in a period when research funding is going down, some chair groups are facing heavy workloads and/or financial shortfalls. Closer collaboration could help them to distribute both the workload and the funding better, says Tiny van Boekel, outgoing director of the Education Institute (OWI). Good idea? And what is already happening along those lines?

Illustration: Henk van Ruitenbeek


Jack van der Vorst, director Social Sciences Group

‘Balancing the plusses and minuses in the way Van Boekel describes is already happening at department level, although of course we aim for positive financial situation for every chair group. What we need to aim at, in my view, is robust groups: programmatic clusters which collaborate on the core business on the basis of a shared vision. We looked at that last year in the context of one of the WUR’s spearheads. By clustering you can make more efficient use of people and facilities, and more role flexibility is possible. You can more easily give management responsibilities to a personal professor or associate professor, for example. The work pressure is high due to our goal of excellence in research and education, combined with rising student numbers and the time it now takes to acquire research funding. And the groups are often fishing in the same pond. At the same time, education funding is important to a chair group, causing them sometimes to compete for education. By collaborating in clusters you can use teaching capacity more effectively and make joint appointments of teaching staff, for instance, or decide together which grants or calls to go for. I’m thinking in terms of clusters of three to five chair groups. But this depends a lot on the groups involved, because there is great diversity.’


Cathelijne Stoof, Assistant professor in the Soil Geography and Landscape chair group

‘I am in favour of more cooperation between groups in both education and research. But I see a lot of pressure on education in the groups around me, so I am not sure whether a better distribution is going to solve anything. More is needed, whichever way you look at it. We take students into the field with us, both in the Netherlands and abroad. And there lies Wageningen’s strength: theory indoors, application outdoors. Landscapes and soils are things you need to see for yourself. Rising student numbers are putting pressure on this practical side of our programmes. You can’t get 70 people around a pit to study a soil profile, or take 90 students for a guided tour on a farm. And didactically, it is also impossible to keep everyone involved when you are explaining something. The quality of your education can go down because of that too. At the moment everyone solves this in their own ways, sometimes opting to do an excursion twice, for example. That raises both the work pressure and the costs. And what do you do about a two-week excursion abroad? I’d be interested to hear about the OWI’s vision on this practical issue.’


Hans Komen, Personal professor of Animal Breeding and Genetics, and OWI board member

‘If you ask me, the first question to ask is whether you should go on facilitating growth. Because there is a very strong relation between the quality of education in Wageningen and its small scale. I’m not against a selection system because you get good students that way. Our chair group does not have problems of high work pressure. Every year we divide the teaching amongst us and we rotate courses to keep ourselves on our toes. We also share the teaching load with other chair groups by combining courses. That is of particular interest in smaller courses such as Population and Quantitative Genetics, which is needed for both Genetics and Animal Breeding and Genetics. We combine the two groups – 60 students in total – and they each get half the education funding. There are other natural matches like that. It’s fine to look at the total result at the department level. A chair group which teaches a lot of Bachelor’s courses will have a heavier teaching load. People who are able to start a lot of projects with businesses and get a lot of PhD researchers on board, will be better placed financially.’


Kees de Graaf, Professor of Sensory Science and Eating Behaviour

‘Our department consists of five chair groups which form a whole in terms of facilities, funding and a joint support staff. This cooperation just grew up. In the 1980s when a second nutrition-related chair group was added, it didn’t split off from the first. And the three chair groups which were added later stayed within the department too. It works because we have shared interests. Being a bigger group makes you a bit more flexible too. Of course you need clear rules of the game and every chair group should take its fair share of responsibility. We’ve arranged the supervision of students so that lecturers supervise PhD candidates, and PhD candidates supervise students writing their theses. Of course, to do that you need enough PhD candidates and therefore enough research funding. And because there is so little room for manoeuvre at the moment, we have set up ‘thesis rings’, in which students discuss each other’s work without any supervision from a teacher. What I am really pleased about is that we recently entered into collaboration with Food Technology. We are working on new courses for the interdisciplinary track on Food Digestion & Health on the Master’s programmes in Food Technology and Nutrition & Health. If it works out it will generate research too. And that helps research and education keep pace with each other.’


Alfons Oude Lansink, Professor of Business Economics and director of the WASS Graduate School

‘In the social sciences, clusters of chair groups have been formed which collaborate on the core business and on secretarial services, and are growing closer. Within some clusters there is now also talk of pooling education resources. Not because of work pressure but for the sake of efficiency. It helps you get the best teachers for each course. I haven’t yet noticed any increased work pressure due to higher student numbers. But if we want to keep on giving students plenty of attention we shall have to have an efficiency drive, especially in teaching methods. Things like thesis rings and further digitalization. But balancing the chair group budgets at department level, the way Van Boekel proposes, doesn’t solve anything in the long term. You can’t keep a chair group going that is systematically performing poorly, financially.’