Student - March 1, 2007

‘Our university is in danger of being swallowed up’

The university is becoming submerged within the larger Wageningen UR, according to the members of the joint student-staff council. Managers lump together the research institutes, the University of Professional Education and Wageningen University, and as a result education and curiosity-driven research are suffering.

The Joint Student-Staff Council (GV) is the body through which students and employees of Wageningen University can voice their opinion on the running of the university. It consists of the Student Council and university personnel representatives. The council wrote a memo about the position of the university to the Executive Board. Wiebe Aans, who works at Studium Generale and is chair of the GV, Ineke Kleemans, a student in the Progressive Student Faction, and Heijman were on the committee that composed the memorandum.

One issue is the new Atlas building. Students who are writing up their thesis have been separated from their supervisors since the building came into use. In many of the Wageningen chair groups it is the custom that these students take part in the daily life of the chair group, and are given office space close to laboratories and their supervisor. In the Environmental Sciences Group this is no longer happens. In order to promote collaboration between the university researchers and those at Alterra, the groups are now housed together. There was no room reserved for student rooms when the building was planned. ‘The collaboration between the DLO research institutes and the university received priority, and this was done at the cost of one of the university’s strong points, its small scale,’ says Kleemans. ‘The rector told us during a discussion that this is no different from other universities, but this is making a comparison downwards, and you shouldn’t do that.’

Another complaint of the GV is the way the university is managed. According to Heijman, a university is different from a research institute and therefore requires different management. The current managers are too concerned with finances and administration, and too little with education and research. ‘I hear many people complaining that there is too little funding for their teaching, and that they have too little time for curiosity-driven research. Money has become too important. A university lecturer is assessed on many points. Teaching is evaluated by students through a questionnaire at the end of a course. Research is continuously assessed by colleagues. I think that someone who has come through all these checks throughout the year can’t be expected at the end of the year to also show that he has covered his own costs.’

The increased focus on bookkeeping among chair groups is putting education in danger, according to Wiebe Aans. The education budget is fixed; extra money can only be earned through research. A chair group with a deficit is therefore likely to attach lower priority to its teaching. ‘You could say the organisation is making unfair use of the lecturers by investing little in education. Many lecturers regard teaching as important and therefore compensate by working extra hard.’

A separate board for the university would probably be more caring towards its own people, the GV thinks. But more money for teaching, more money for curiosity-driven research and a separate management board are all things that cost money. Where should this come from? Heijman: ‘We haven’t worked out our plans that far yet. Despite the cuts of recent years, I still see a lot of spending on overheads, maybe there’s still room for more savings. A few years ago you never heard of deficits at chair groups. Now it’s common.’ Aans: ‘I don’t want to comment. We have no readymade solutions. Our main message is that we are thinking about the matter.’

The Executive Board seems less inclined to do so. ‘The university has never had it better,’ said the President of the Executive Board, Aalt Dijkhuizen, in a meeting to discuss the GV’s worries. The managers and professors, the teaching institute, and the graduate schools all ensure that the culture of the university is different from that of the research institutes. They are all working together, and that’s what makes Wageningen stronger, said the chairman. If it hadn’t been for the merger, the university would have gone under long ago.

University Rector Martin Kropff expressed surprise and promised to find out whether professors shared the GV’s view that the university is becoming snowed under.

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