(This article is translated from Dutch, the original is here)
More and more dominoes in the university are falling. Postdoc researchers with short term contracts cannot get their data, PhD students are worried that their thesis will not be finished in four years’ time, and flex workers have suddenly lost their source of income.
At the department of psychology, a lot of researchers saw their research implode. “Most of the experiments we do are impossible to do online”, developmental psychologist Kiki Zanolie says. “You just want to sit right next to a child, and see how they react. That’s impossible, for now.”
The consequences are “Huge”, she says. “Especially for young researchers. For instance, we hired a postdoc for one year. Her research is going down fast, now. In this one year, you want to show your best self, as a researcher: write your articles, get them published. It won’t happen, and because it didn’t happen, getting research grants in the future will be harder.
Half the data
The postdoc is called Susanne Asscheman, and she thinks the situation is “very sad, obviously.” “But that’s what it is. Nobody can change it.” Her research entails the social and emotional development of eleven and twelve year olds.
“Even if the elementary schools open up after the May holidays (We know now that they are – VB), I suspect that the university will decide that there can be no physical research there until at least the first of June. Which will mean that I only have half a dataset. Publishing will be impossible, and my chances of getting grants will be smaller.”
“It’s a ripple effect”, Zanolie says. “The fact that this research is not happening, is affecting our own grant applications, too. Our group is doing a lot of longitudinal research projects where you do several measurements on the same child in a certain time period, and these are going down as well. It’s a real loss.”
The FNV party in the university council says it’s getting a lot of questions and complaints about the effects of the corona crisis. “The university is doing everything it can to not give out permanent contracts”, lecturer and FNV councilmember Marat Markert says. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth.”
He gives an example: “A young scientist with a research grant, who cannot do her field work because of the lockdown. There had already been a bit of a hassle with her appointment: she had to finish the research in three years rather than four, because in that case the university would be legally required to give her a permanent position. Now, she suddenly has to teach an online course, while she wants to get back to the fieldwork as soon as possible. But nobody seems to take that into account – she’s really angry about this.”
Then there’s the self-employed lecturers hired by the university. Markert: “Everyone has to teach online now, but the switch took a lot of time. The self-employed are not getting paid for all of those extra hours. They are a vulnerable group, and the university is telling them to take it or leave it. The crisis is increasing the pressure on these staff, and they feel the university is abusing the situation.”
Staff on temporary contracts is worried about a follow-up to their current positions. “Normally, they would get some information about this by this time of year. That’s harder these days, because so much is uncertain. Will there be enough students next year?”
Support staff is also hurt by the crisis. “I used to put the chairs and tables up for exams in the university sports center”, student Brenda Reuver (religious studies) says. “There is a whole team of students that used to do it through Jobmotion, the university temping agency. Now, all exams are online and we got the message that we our services are no longer required.”
Source of income
For Reuver, that job was just a sideline to get some extra money. “I’m sad to lose it, but I can still get by. I get some money from the Dutch government, and I can borrow more. It’s not great, but it’s something. It’s harder for the people who depend in sources of income like this.”
“We got money for four more days, and that was it. The sports center was unhappy about it, and wanting to arrange something more, but wasn’t going to happen. I think the university could try harder to get an overview of the flexible staff whose income has suddenly been reduced to zero. Try to pay at least a little. It’s cruel to just put them on the dole.”
After all, students are still paying tuition, and the Dutch government is still paying money to the university. Their source of income hasn’t stopped, Reuver says. “That means you can do something, financially, for staff that is really getting into trouble. We are not that expensive: my boss used to joke that we’re cheaper than the chairs we put out. It’s easy to just ditch the people with flexible contracts, but the university could also set an example for social policy.”
The university crisis team is also focusing on the effects of the lockdown on HR matters. “One of the important things is a possible delay in PhD projects. ‘Een van de pijnpunten is de mogelijke vertraging van promoties’, Marishka Neekilappillai says. She is a PhD student herself, at the faculty of Law, and represents the young researchers trough the PhDoc party in the university council. “Let’s say you run up half a year of delay because of the lockdown, can you get extra time to finish your project?”
Even apart from practical matters – not being able to do field work, not having access to your lab or your test subjects – there is also a psychological side to the pandemic, she says. “It hurts your productivity, even if your research is not hurt directly. I can still do my research, but I notice how I’m distracted way more quickly than usual.”
The university has sent research guidelines regarding the corona pandemic to all faculties. “It asks group leaders to contact their staff, and to talk about the effects of the crisis on the research, and about what would be a realistic course of action. I hope that PhD supervisors are really having these talks
University board member Martijn Ridderbos, who is also in charge of the crisis team , recently told the university council that there are still talks about financing delays. Many researchers are paid by grant agencies like NWO and the ERC, so these are partners in that discussion, too. “There are no conclusions yet”, he said.
The PhDoc Party had been wanting to write a letter about the possibilities of extra research time for PhD students in case of sickness or burnout. “We will ask the university board how the different faculties do this. Any corona delays can be covered in the same way.”
According to Neekilappillai, the university board is still not certain about what to do with short-term contracts. “I feel that a postdoc with a one-year contract who cannot do research right now, should get the time and money to finish their research. It seems no more than reasonable to me if someone in that position gets told: don’t worry. It’s just being a good employer.”