Nieuws - 26 mei 2011

Digging their heels in

Things are not going well with the Employees' and Students' Councils. They are expensive, complex and do not properly reflect the Wageningen UR population. On top of that, there is often a lack of trust between directors and Councils.

A good example of the awkward relationship between directors and Councils was when ESG Kees Slingerland director took a case to court. That dispute was not about the career opportunities for post-doc biologists, nor about the strategy taken by Alterra - it was not even about the tropical temperatures in Lumen. What Slingerland wanted last year was a judicial decision about the minimum amount of information he had to give the Employees' Council.

The relationship between the two parties had reached an all-time low after the forced relocation of soil institute Isric. The directors and the Council were bickering about procedures, numbers and rules. There had not been any constructive consultation for a long time.
There was another court case last year in Lelystad after the directors tried to order employees who were 'set in their ways' to take on other work. And only six months ago the Van Hall Larenstein Employees' Council passed a resolution of no confidence in director Ellen Marks.

Grey-haired, white men
Although there are positive exceptions, on the whole mistrust plagues the relationship between the Wageningen directors and the Councils. That is particularly unfortunate at present because the Councils will be seeing some changes if the Executive Board has anything to do with it.
The Executive Board and the Science Group directors want a system of Employees' and Students' Councils that is simpler, better and cheaper. The Councils themselves also want it to become simpler and better but not necessarily cheaper. What is more, they think the directors should show more trust.
These initial conclusions come from a working group headed by SSG director Ruud Huirne. He is working out the details of one of the action points in the 2011-2014 strategic plan on behalf of the Executive Board. Initial talks with the people concerned showed him that they are prepared to tackle the problems.
For example, Cees van Dijk, chairman of the Central Employees' Council, thinks that Council members should receive training so that they can deal with financial matters or HR issues. It is also true that the Councils have a high proportion of grey-haired, white men. They do not properly reflect an organization with many international, young and temporary employees. It should also be possible to get involved for short periods only. Full and associate professors are quite prepared to put in the work when a particular issue arises but are not willing to commit themselves for three years.
Some Employees' Councils acknowledge that they operate too independently. Consultations with the Central Employees' Council do not always go smoothly. Coordination is essential and there is a high degree of complexity. That is why the Councils are already thinking out loud about a new structure, so the organizational chart shown here will probably be out of date by the end of the summer. For example, the Employees' Councils in Velp and Leeuwarden will be merging whilst the Central Participational Body (CMO) will probably be replaced by a so-called WUR Council, which will include representation of the Joint Student Staff Council (GV, the university's council). This WUR Council should be capable of standing up to the Executive Board. At present, Dijkhuizen and his associates regularly discuss the same topic with the Students' Council, the Joint Student Staff Council (GV), the Central Employees' Council (COR) and the Joint Participational Council (GMR).
Concertina model
Ruud Huirne is considering a concertina model: reducing the intensity in times of peace and intensifying activity during a reorganization, for example. He has had positive experience of this approach during the reorganization of LEI in 2009.
However, the Councils are not giving anything away (yet); they are willing to talk about more efficient procedures but not if the main objective is to cut costs. The tone of the letters between the directors and the Councils speaks volumes. The Councils are willing to talk about new procedures provided that 'the directors take a critical look at their own role'. The directors are prepared to do this on condition that the process 'results in a more efficient, cheaper participational system'. That is exactly what the Councils do not want. Despite this, the Executive Board proposed at the end of April that if a joint agreement had not been reached by 1 May 2012, they would appoint an expert committee to come up with a binding recommendation, 'including efficiency improvements with a visible financial effect'. The Board asked for a response by 18 May at the latest. That response was that 18 May is too early as the Central Participational Body and the Employees' Councils have not yet talked to each other.
An attempt was made to simplify the participational system six years ago but without success. The Councils seem to be more cooperative this time, but directors and Councils still need to agree jointly to treat each other with courtesy. That is rather difficult if you don't trust each other.

0.6 or 2.2 million?
Wageningen UR has an extensive system of Employees' Councils, the result of the merger of the University and the DLO institutes in 2000. That was an experimental knowledge structure, which is why the decision was made to have a strong participational system. Then VHL was added on later.
However, WU, DLO and VHL remained separate legal entities. The result is that students, university staff, DLO staff and VHL staff each have their own representation, both at the local level and the central level. Each Council has different tasks, regulated in two separate acts. The representation of DLO staff is governed by only the Works Councils Act (which regulates involvement in such issues as accommodation, finance and HR policy), student representation is subject only to the Higher Education and Research Act, while both Acts applied to staff at the university and the university of applied science.
Wageningen UR has around 115 Employees' Council members and 12 Students' Council members. Membership of an Employees' Council generally costs half a day in the week and the member's department gets compensation for that. According to the Executive Board, that compensation and the costs of hiring in specific expertise (legal or financial experts) comes to 2.2 million euros. However, the Councils have come up with a different amount: 600,000 euros.