Temporary labour at university is getting out of hand (but what can you do about it?)
University teachers rarely get a permanent contract. They are resisting, and do not rule out a strike. But who to strike against? 'The university board are also with their backs against the wall'.
Anoushka Kloosterman
Tuesday 23 February 2021

Roughly, you can divide all university staff into two groups. One is the supportive staff, who take care of the day-to-day university business and keep everything afloat. The other is the research staff, with a structured hierarchy: professors at the top, then associate professors, followed by assistant professors, and finally teaching staff at the bottom.

In theory, you should be able to climb that ladder. In reality, a lot of teachers are stuck. Teaching positions generally only allow time to, well, teach, and not to do research. But without having done research, they are not eligible for a promotion.

‘So we do it in our spare time, in a desperate attempt to obtain one of the increasingly hollowed out permanent positions’, says Sai Englert, teacher at International Studies, to dozens of people who gathered in a Zoom-call last week. The meeting was organized by Casual Leiden, a group of staff members who are campaigning against the university’s hiring policy.

More insecurity

‘There are laws to limit the use of casual contracts for permanent work’, he continues. ‘But that limit on temporary contract is not protecting us. It is leading to more insecurity.’

Unlike the higher positions within the research staff, teachers rarely get a permanent contract. University wide, 75 percent of teachers work on a temporary basis, reports the university in a document called Personeel in Cijfers 2020. At the faculty of Social Sciences, only 6 percent have a permanent contract. In The Hague, at the faculty of Governance and Global Affairs, it’s 7 percent.

Paradoxally, teachers are a structural part of the university, says Elisa Da Vía. ‘They are a structural part of our programme. We keep hiring temporary people for permanent positions. In order to keep highly trained staff, we use complicated furlough practices, like letting colleagues go for a while to have them come back later. Or we find ad hoc exceptions, or gaps in the policy, that benefit few and don’t address the structural problem.’

Da Vía and the other tutors of International Studies started corresponding with the university’s executive board in April last year, by sending out an urgent letter with a plea to change the hiring policy. In the first two letters, the former rector Carel Stolker wrote that, by exception, a small number of teachers were given a permanent position. He also mentioned that in order to make the teaching positions more stable, 25 percent of newly hired staff will receive a four year contract.

Always temporary

But in terms of changing policy, he did not give in, says Da Vía: ‘He said: the university does not promote teaching positions, so they are always temporary.’

Leiden University does not want to give everyone a permanent contract, but maintain what is called a ‘flexible layer’, so it is easier to respond or reorganise if times are bad. Nicole van Os, coordinator of studies at the faculty of Humanities, has worked at the university for years and is not convinced by the argument: ‘I’ve worked here for over fifteen years, and have been a member of the faculty council for many years too. And I’ve only ever seen student numbers go up.’

‘I keep hearing that we need this ‘flexible layer’ to deal with fluctuations. A large part of our financing is based on the number of students. It’s interesting to keep hearing how they expect the student numbers to go down, and that that is the reason they can’t hand out permanent contracts.’

Remco Breuker, Korean Studies professor and university council member, sees a system in which the ‘older’ generation is ‘cannibalizing’ the younger staff.

To him, the budget is the biggest problem. ‘If you go to the minister, and ask if the number of temporary contracts is a good thing, she will say ‘no’. If you go to the executive board, they will say the same. There is consensus, but it goes out the window when you get to faculty or institute level. Not because they are more or less evil, but because they work with the budget, and the budget just won’t cut it.’

Strike! But against who?

‘The first real solution is to stop building buildings, and invest in what the university is really about: teachers and students. The other solution is solidarity, to just not sign the papers. If the budget only allows for temporary contracts for structural work, and we refuse to sign them, the system will grind to a halt.’

‘This is extremely difficult. We love our jobs. We believe we are contributing something. It’s hard to go on strike. But I don’t see any other solution.’

The idea of striking resonates with the other attendees during the panel discussion. But who would you strike against? ‘Usually, against your employer’, says Van Os. ‘But our situation is different’.

‘The university board also feels like they are with their backs against the wall’, adds Breuker. ‘The structural solution lies with the government.’

Breuker has looked into how a strike would work for WOinActie, a national organisation that campaigns for a better working environment for university staff. ‘If there is no assurance from the executive board that no one will be punished for striking, it is not going to happen. I don’t actually think they would punish anyone, but there is that fear. One solution would be to have our administrators join us.’

Englert disagree: ‘We should strike against our employer, especially because they have their backs against the wall. If you have nowhere to go, which direction do you push? They university is pushing downwards, because there is no resistance there. It is much, much easier to do that. We are desperate. We have to live, and we want to stay here.’

‘But the structural issues need to be addressed upwards. Universities are very powerful institutions: they are massive employers, important for government strategies, to attract researchers for all kinds of industries. They have enormous economic and political power, that they are not using against the government but against us.’

‘That is why striking is important. It forces them to turn around and look into the other direction.’

‘We have to push’, Da Vía agrees. ‘Just saying that their hands are tied by policy isn’t enough. I’m not so sure they are on our side.’

Casual Leiden is conducting a survey, that you can find here.