On July 7, the Dutch Ministry for Education Culture and Science presented a new Strategy Agenda. This marks one of the major developments of the past months. The Strategy Agenda might change the debate about both the present and the future reality of universities in the Netherlands. Subtitled ‘The value(s) of knowledge’, it outlines the required changes and designated measures to prepare higher education for the coming decade. One of its most alluring promises, in very basic terms, is more money for higher education. However, the sad implication is that the money is coming from student loans. As of 1 September 2015 students, instead of receiving a grant (studiebeurs) are only offered a loan at low interest rates to finance their studies. This might well be considered one of the decisive ‘21st-century skills’ that are so often invoked throughout the agenda: these days, the first thing a student has to learn is dealing with debt.
This is all the more a reason to take a careful look at how this money is supposed to be spent, how the agenda defines the problems of Dutch universities, and how the future challenges and measures for their solution are defined. While leaving the current student and academic protest unmentioned, the agenda includes clear references to some of the movement’s major concerns. It addresses the imbalance between teaching and research as well as increasing bureaucratization. Importantly, it concedes that in the past years the universities’ budget was not adapted to growing student numbers.
This, however, is directly related to the most disappointing omission of the Strategy Agenda’s 100 pages: the unbearable workload for most of the academic staff – resulting from the combination of high student numbers and the accumulation of new cumbersome tasks – is not mentioned at all, and there is thus no strategy to cope with it. Furthermore, the imbalance between teaching and research is glossed over as a more symbolic than structural issue, and the problem of bureaucratization is mostly mentioned in passing instead of confronted head on. Overall, the agenda remains entirely within the framework that has led towards the present dead ends – it still takes for granted that more competition, constant innovation, and more flexible employees will guarantee greater quality and diversity of teaching and research.
The promise of additional staff-members (the paper promises nearly 4000 or an increase of 15% until 2025) indeed comes with the promise of smaller classes. However, one additional staff member per department (that is what these numbers might eventually deliver) surely will not change the foundations of today’s teaching load. Even worse (but not surprising in the current political climate), the additional money also comes with a long list of partly interesting but underfunded, partly hollow calls for innovation, professionalization, and quality improvement. As if the problem lay in low quality and a lack of motivation instead of shortages of time and money, the minister (in a press interview related to the presentation) criticized that universities are currently too much focused on the transmission of knowledge instead of communication with, and the individual development of, students.
The Fetish of Innovation and the Foundations of Knowledge
Instead of realizing that teaching and research could progress considerably by granting academics more time for the development of content or more individual feedback, the agenda feels obliged to envision an allegedly ‘dynamic’, ‘flexible’, ‘ever-changing’ present and future world to which the academy is not well adapted [e.g. ‘een in toenemende mate onvoorspelbare, complexe en geglobaliseerde wereld. ’ p 8].
The experience of the past year has taught us that too many innovations in teaching (and university organization for that matter) are a waste of money and time. They are either badly implemented or underfunded – or both. Or they only figure as a fetish of innovation without anyone caring for the benefits these innovations could actually deliver in different disciplines and specific circumstances. The agenda aims to trigger the right attitude by promising grants and special programs for new forms of teaching without, of course, calculating the additional managerial layer that is unavoidable for all such measures. The same holds for the application of new teaching forms discussed in the agenda: gamification, blended learning, and MOOCs. While these didactic tools often promise to be efficient (aside from their alleged potential to enthuse students), these methods demand specific additional competences and resources, if they are to be effective. (Five people are working on each of the lectures of Udacity, one of the poster child start ups promoting MOOCs, to make them funny, motivating, and thrilling (https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastian-thrun-uphill-climb)). One should only base promises on new tools if the budget to develop and apply them is secured.
The underfunding of the demanded improvements goes hand in hand with a naïve belief in progress that would automatically be achieved if only the university would welcome the latest innovations with open arms. Constant improvement (and permanent professionalization) is a very technical idea – and even technology, as philosophers, sociologist, and engineers tell us, cannot constantly be improved: every new version comes with new bugs or introduces a new paradigm that cannot be compared to an enhancement of the earlier form (think of the ebook compared to a book). Moreover, it recently became clear that MOOCs struggle much more with attrition than lecture hall lectures (only 7% of the students finish classes). Especially weaker students and students with less potent media technologies at their hands suffer as a consequence.(http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2013/11/sebastian_thrun_and_udacity_distance_learning_is_unsuccessful_for_most_students.html). More generally, the positive effects of IT technology in teaching are still far from clear, according to empirical research (http://www.volkskrant.nl/binnenland/-scholieren-presteren-niet-beter-met-computer~a4142493/).
Against this backdrop, we wish carefully to discuss and evaluate the rhetoric and symbolic practice of innovation. No one doubts that teaching methods will change due to new insights from didactics or new student needs. The pretension of the Strategy Agenda, however, that teaching can and must be constantly improved and professionalized might be more damaging than helpful.
Considering this context it is remarkable that the Strategy Agenda explicitly states that ICT is not supposed to extend teaching but rather to deploy fewer teachers (“ICT mag naar mijn mening nooit worden ingezet om het onderwijs te extensiveren; juist om minder docenten in te zetten”, p. 26). The time needed to invest in these online courses would thus be deducted from time spent in personal communication with students.
Similarly, the agenda’s suggestion that by 2025 all teaching materials will be openly accessible (p. 34), while worthy of consideration, does not take into account the necessity to develop and adopt a curriculum. Contrary to one of the agenda’s main concerns, it also insinuates that courses can be taught independently from the staff who developed them (and who can more easily be replaced, if this form of knowledge distribution is considered to be sufficient). Also, teaching becomes even more disconnected from the organic development of research. Nevertheless, the initiative is closely connected to the megalomaniac idea to become the ‘global vanguard’ (‘voortrekkersrol in de wereld’) in Open Online Onderwijs. Before aiming for global excellence, one should try to do things as well as possible within the available budget. Too much in the Strategy Agenda comes with additional efforts that, once more, neither seem to get remunerated nor seem to be embedded in the professional capacities that already exist.
A similar ambivalence and blindness for reality characterizes the Strategy Agenda’s take on the relationship between teaching and research. It is good that the paper aims at a closer connection between the two, but already the diagnosis of the situation is plain wrong. It implies that academics are to blame for the fact that teaching is underappreciated in comparison with research. The day-to-day reality is much more perverted since it combines a higher symbolic appreciation of research with an higher organizational priority of teaching – this is what splits the academic community and sometimes puts pressure on one and the same person from two different directions. Especially colleagues with fixed-term contracts have to desperately try to publish – since in most application procedures this indeed counts more than good teaching – and simultaneously to be an unusually reliable, accurate, over-performing teacher, since this is what defines their contractual obligations, their daily deadlines, and their ability to function in the workplace. Thus it is a far too simple argument to claim that teaching is insufficiently valued. Not only would a lot of scientists in research projects, PhD students etc. love to gain experience (and discuss their research) in teaching while there are not enough teaching tasks for them. Additionally, in the everyday practice of most academics who are lucky enough to have a job comprising both teaching and research, no one is actually interested in securing their research time while a lot of people are interested in squeezing as much as possible out of their teaching time: for quite some time, research has become a second-shift job. If teaching is sometimes considered to be the lesser task, this is only due to the fact that under current conditions, it is eating up the time for research (which would make teaching more rewarding).
All efforts to upgrade teaching symbolically, or even to formally make it more central through competition, extra money, extra training etc. will clearly fail without tackling the systemic imbalance of teaching and research that remains unmentioned in the Strategy Agenda.
More attention for, and innovation in, teaching as well as a better balance between teaching and research could be much more easily achieved by, for instance, granting all staff members research time. It is a weird irony that even the new jobs promised in the Strategy Agenda are only partly jobs comprising both teaching and research. Simultaneously t teaching load needs to be defined so that it does not constantly eat up research time. Innovation of teaching needs to be developed from within the university and not imposed from above as a strategy designed to reduce student attrition or to shorten the duration of study – all these measures have kept the academic staff busy with other things than with student contact in the past years. It also important to repeat one of ReThink’s central demands here: give research money to the universities rather than to centralized bodies organizing competitions not only between academics but also between disciplines and universities – that cannot usefully be compared. . While some people suspect academics to be backward-looking or outright lazy, such a simple redistribution of money and research time would not only save a lot of overhead cost, it would actually give them the space to bring teaching and research, teachers and students into closer contact. Calculated more honestly, the money promised in the Strategy Agenda would just be sufficient to compensate the universities for all the additional tasks and students they had to take on in the past years. If The Hague, however, is afraid of giving people and institutions money (for work they have in fact already been doing) without again adding new tasks and stipulations it is of utmost importance that the framework for defining problems and seeking solutions is a more innovative one than that envisioned in the Strategy Agenda.